Hand to mouth

Teachers fear malnourishment and poverty are on the rise among students

Joseph Lee

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Teachers are increasingly faced with evidence of poverty and malnourishment among their students, a new survey for the Prince's Trust and TES has found.

Nearly half of more than 500 teachers polled by YouGov said that they encounter students who are malnourished, or show signs they have not eaten enough, at least once a term.

It also found that classroom staff fear their students will leave school only to end up on benefits and that their efforts are wasted as youth unemployment remains above 1 million.

The survey - which was carried out before the news this week that the UK economy has dipped back into recession - found 70 per cent of teachers are increasingly worried that their students will fail to enter work or higher education and will have to claim benefits. More than half said that they always or often feel that they cannot do enough to support disadvantaged young people, and a quarter said they felt this way more often since the recession.

More than a third of teachers said that their efforts seemed to be "in vain", and 45 per cent believed their students hold similar views and are losing faith that education can get them a job since the economic downturn.

But the most striking comments were about childhood poverty. "While on lunch duty I often see scavenger pupils finishing off mates' scraps as they haven't eaten enough," one teacher told the researchers. Others said that free school meals were often the only food that some students were given to eat - emphasising their importance at a time when the Children's Society has warned that 120,000 families could lose free meals as a result of benefit reforms.

More than one in four teachers said they regularly see children walking miles to school as they cannot afford transport. And more than two-thirds said that they often see pupils with holes in their shoes. One teacher said that he sees a primary school girl walk to school almost every day, a distance of at least four miles. Another told of how a pupil walked to school in the snow wearing just her socks because her shoes no longer fit her.

Several teachers reported buying food or clothing for pupils. While some said they had seen a "marked" increase in depression and emotional problems among students as joblessness took its toll on family life, many teachers said they were struggling under the pressure, too: 45 per cent of teachers who spend time working with disadvantaged students said they often feel stressed.

Teachers' experiences during the recession have fuelled support for a different approach in schools: more than two-thirds said that education should focus more on making young people employable in the current economic conditions. Mentoring was most frequently named as the most successful intervention to support students at risk of exclusion.

"The recession is already damaging the hopes of more than a million young people who are struggling to find a job. Now young people in schools are next in line. We cannot allow them to become the next victims of this recession," said Ginny Lunn, director of policy and strategy at the Prince's Trust, which provides education programmes aimed at 13- to 16- year-olds who are struggling at school. "With the right support, it is possible for students to achieve their ambitions rather than becoming a `lost generation'."

And Lynda Harris, a teacher at Feltham Community College who has worked with the Prince's Trust, agreed. "We have lots of students who come from difficult backgrounds, where parents have lost their jobs or haven't ever had jobs. Lots of students I've spoken to say they didn't see there was any point coming to school," she said. Intensive, small-group work with disadvantaged students had helped to motivate those who previously saw no prospects in education, she added.

One student who attended a Prince's Trust programme said that the individual attention at a pupil referral unit and the confidence-building techniques of the Prince's Trust adviser helped at a time when he was living in care and struggling with a breakdown in family relations.

"When I was about 14, I was getting into trouble with the police, running away," said Dominic Groves, now 18 and hoping to work abroad before heading to university. "I wasn't really attending school - I was more worried about where I was going to live. I found lessons very boring. I don't really like being told what to do. At school, I just felt like another number."


70% of teachers are "increasingly worried" that students will end up on benefits

53% "always" or "often" feel they cannot do enough to support disadvantaged students

45% say that students are losing faith that education can get them a job since the recession

48% say that they see students at least once a term who are malnourished or show signs that they have not eaten enough

69% say that they see students at least once a term who come into school with holes in their shoes

28% say that at least once a term they see students walking miles to school because they cannot afford public transport.

Original headline: Teachers feel pressure as malnourished pupils add to stresses

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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