The Educational Institute of Scotland has sent out a Christmas message with a difference, highlighting the effects of poverty on pupils' attainment, and has decided to commission a study into the educational implications of deprivation.
Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said: "On the threshold of 1998, it is not acceptable to find that there are still schools where there are children too cold, too undernourished or too poor to take full advantage of education."
The significance of the issue was stressed at the EIS's special 150th anniversary conference in Stirling last month. Tom Devaney, a former union president, declared: "The alleviation of child poverty is the biggest single education advance we could make if we want to improve standards in schools. "
Glasgow's figures show the scale of the problem with which schools have to cope. Forty per cent of pupils are on free meals, nearly 60 per cent receive clothing grants, and 45 per cent of households are on income support.
Some schools face even more dire circumstances. Lamlash primary in the city's Easterhouse has just under 70 per cent of pupils on free meals. The Scottish primary average is 22 per cent.
The EIS says new figures highlight the impact of the growing gap between rich and poor. The Scottish Poverty Information Unit estimates that 80 per cent of young people from affluent backgrounds go into higher education, compared with 11 per cent from deprived areas. "These figures are in themselves stark evidence that deprivation and poverty are significant factors in determining levels of educational success," Mr Smith said.
An estimated one in four children in Scotland live in households dependent on income support, according to a Glasgow Caledonian University study. Many lone parents go without food to meet the needs of their children, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported this year. The housing charity Shelter said last year that more than 21,000 children had become homeless since 1990.
Mr Smith said equal opportunities policies often overlooked poverty. There was now "a growing awareness that equality in education will not be achieved unless and until the root causes of deprivation are confronted".
The EIS investigation will include a scrutiny of how councils distribute their funds to combat the effects of poverty on schools. The study will look at rural as well as urban poverty.
The union's move follows a significant decision by Aberdeen to give education the lead role in a new anti-poverty drive which will involve schools and health agencies. Schools are to be set health targets which John Stodter, the city's director of education, says are more pressing than attainment targets. "Unhealthy children will not achieve their full potential," Mr Stodter said.