'Tackling holiday hunger gives food for thought'

Giving poor pupils free meals every day of the year should help to remove a barrier to learning, says Henry Hepburn

The idyllic summer holidays depicted in Gregory's Girl aren't experienced by all pupils

Gregory’s Girl, perhaps the best film ever made in Scotland and the best film set in a school (pictured, inset), concludes with a beautiful evocation of the onset of a hazy summer. Gregory’s gauche musings on dancing and gravity, as he lies by a tree with his admirer Susan, while people play football and ride bikes against the background sunset, is the idyll of a perfect teenage summer: after the harum-scarum stress of term time comes the repose of the holidays, when school is utterly forgotten.

But this yearly rhythm doesn’t work for everyone. Researchers, for example, have found that the longer the summer break goes on, the more certain children are to regress in their learning (“Holiday hunger leads to five-week learning lag”, Tes Scotland, bit.ly/Tes_LearningLag). And pressure is heaped on to parents, who may be struggling to balance work and childcare during the summer holidays – or even to feed their children.

The long holiday is a potential problem

Gone are the days when, as the school gates closed for the summer, staff and pupils would all forget about each other for the best part of two months. Now, more and more summer schemes are appearing, as educators come to view the long holiday as a potential problem. As they sift through myriad ideas for closing the attainment gap that so concerns the Scottish government (“Another £50m to close attainment gap in Scotland”, Tes Scotland, 22 May), the summer hiatus often comes into focus.

But one Scottish local authority is taking things further than any other in the UK – by providing free meals to children from poorer families 365 days a year. North Lanarkshire will soon be delivering free school meals all year, including weekends and Christmas Day.

It goes without saying that you learn better on a full stomach. And North Lanarkshire Council’s assistant chief executive, Isabelle Boyd, a former secondary headteacher, tells Tes Scotland that many children are going hungry. Earlier this year, she encountered a seven-year-old boy who felt compelled to ask every 10 minutes when lunch was, so acute was his hunger. “In 2018 in Scotland, that’s a disgrace,” she says.

The summer clubs offer more than a square meal, including activities ranging from rock climbing to pyjama parties – it’s not a soup kitchen, stresses Boyd. The scheme is a work in progress, with one leading expert in holiday hunger suggesting to Tes Scotland that it needs some fine-tuning around, for example, the optimum amount of time children spend at each session. But filling empty bellies is the priority, and that same expert lauds the general principle of a year-round scheme, describing its potential as “fantastic”. And it comes at a time when teachers are seeing increasing numbers of children coming to school hungry or without having washed.

Hungry pupils don't learn well

It would be trite to suggest that such initiatives could instantly and dramatically improve the lives of children in chaotic households, where spiralling debt, substance misuse and mental health problems may be ever-present realities – and where the home is anything but a sanctuary. However, at least one impediment to learning might be removed; as the French poet and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine put it, “A hungry stomach has no ears.”

There’s a tendency in some quarters to pick holes in this sort of scheme. For now, though, we should laud the ambition. If every child eats well every day, those who might have lagged behind are that bit more likely to do well at school – and, when the time comes, to have the sort of carefree holidays enjoyed by Gregory and his girl.

@Henry_Hepburn

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