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Teachers' compassion offers food for thought

The idea of children going hungry in 21st-century Scotland instinctively feels absurd. It is supposed to be a topic for the History Channel to ponder, a plight of the Dust Bowl and the Dickensian slums. To lack the basic levels of nutrition to get through the day should, like polio and child labour, be a scandal buried in the past.

And yet. Children in Scotland may no longer be shimmying up chimneys, but in increasing numbers they are not eating enough - and sometimes barely eating at all (see pages 18-20).

The clues have been there for a while. Teachers have reported more children arriving at school gaunt and listless. They see pupils stealing food and deal with the outbursts of rage prompted by rumbling stomachs. Referrals to food banks - an emblem of these times of austerity - are soaring, with teachers often doing the referring.

The anecdotal evidence is the tip of an almighty iceberg. Child poverty fell by 44 per cent between 1996-97 and 2011-12. Now that progress has gone into reverse. "It will get much bleaker before it gets better," says Dr John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University.

Some 220,000 children in Scotland are currently estimated to live in poverty, and that figure may swell by 100,000 in the next five years.

The teaching profession is by its nature altruistic. It is no surprise to hear of teachers bringing in toasters to make breakfast for whole classes, so the most needy child doesn't feel ashamed, or storing fruit in their desks for the boys and girls who fall asleep because last night's dinner never happened.

But teachers and their employers can only do so much. Forces far beyond them have caused poverty to be on the rise again. Local authorities are warning that the worst cuts to services are yet to come. We are seven years on from the epoch-making global financial crisis but, like an oil slick in the ocean, the damage slowly continues to spread outwards.

Now we may see whether the ongoing reform of schooling in Scotland really will produce a generation of independent thinkers, as it claims on the Curriculum for Excellence tin. Will pupils be empowered enough to pick apart the political recklessness and idolatry of markets that got us into this mess, to redress the catastrophic mistakes of their elders? Or will they succumb to a grim acceptance that living standards are on their way down and there's nothing they can do about it?

The former will mean learning to understand some head-scrambling ideas, and - as one child said in a report on poverty and education last year - if you don't eat then you can't think.

So that slice of toast, those extra tangerines and the cereal bars stuffed into teachers' lunchboxes may do more than offset hunger pangs. Children need to eat - but they've got a lot of thinking to do, too.

henry.hepburn@tesglobal.com

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