'Children’s heads can’t be filled if their stomachs are empty'

It's hard to teach hungry pupils – which is why so many schools are having to step in where the support system is failing, writes Tes editor Ann Mroz

Pupil hunger: running on low fuel

It’s hard to teach a child who’s hungry. How can anyone concentrate on learning how to use a fronted adverbial when their stomach is growling?

Not that long ago, I visited a school in a deprived rural area. If you stood facing in one direction, the view was stunning. But on turning around, you were confronted with a deserted, boarded-up high street.

Mid-morning, the head took me on a tour of the school. When we reached the cafeteria he suddenly disappeared. I stood behind the waiting throng of children searching for him. Then I saw him. He was behind the counter serving the children with a bacon bap or a slice of pizza. He was serving them, he said, because it enabled him to break down barriers and establish a connection with them. After all, there’s no more trusting relationship than the one between a child and their food provider. Truly in loco parentis.

The children had not had breakfast at home – many had not had dinner the previous evening, either. The food dished out might not have been the healthiest, but it filled them up and was all the school could manage. If they wanted the children to learn, that’s what they had to do. Before they could even start filling their heads, they had to fill their stomachs.

These children were like any other schoolchildren. Just much poorer. For the teachers and headteachers working with children who live in relative poverty, it makes the job 1,000 times harder. We can talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations, but it’s pointless when it’s served on a bed of hypocrisy and with a dollop of political disdain. We can talk about there being not enough conclusive research on the link between pupil hunger and attainment, but educators in these areas know the reality.

“I can put faces to those statistics and those worn phrases like ‘relative poverty’ and ‘failure to thrive’,” says Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School. “I have watched the day to day decline of children in whom the light of belief has gone out, who have lost faith that the system works for them or anybody that they know."

It is, of course, a sad indictment of modern Britain that children are going hungry here, in the world’s sixth richest economy. It’s dispiriting, too, that fiscally stretched schools are forced to step in where the support system has failed. But the structural reasons that have led to a jump in childhood poverty are deeper than the school system can fix. Even with free school meals, it’s just not enough.

We can argue over universal infant free school meals and whether they are a good use of taxpayers’ money; the politicians certainly have. But there is no appetite to do any research into the scheme’s efficacy because the government would have to do something about the findings.

Meanwhile, schools are desperately trying to fill the gaps. On top of UIFSM, there are breakfast clubs and holiday clubs to feed pupils. Some heads are even looking to try to provide an evening meal too.

Leeds-based former headteacher Nathan Atkinson knew he had a problem when a child fished a half-eaten apple out of the bin and ate what was left. It inspired him to set up a not-for-profit that sends unwanted food to schools in exchange for a small voluntary parental donation.

I have no answers, only admiration for heads and teachers who, on top of myriad accountability and financial pressures on them, find it in their hearts to feed pupils when no one else is.

Once upon a time, we tell pupils in history lessons, vast numbers of children lived in poverty and hunger. Sadly, vast numbers still do. And frankly, that’s unacceptable.

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