Dealing with a classroom full of empty stomachs

11th September 2015 at 01:00
Teachers report rise in children coming into school hungry

Scotland’s biggest teaching union has published advice about helping children who are going hungry, amid growing fears that the plight of many pupils is not being picked up.

Soaring referrals to food banks and the distribution of aid across Scotland in a way not seen since the Second World War have galvanised the EIS to act.

Members report that many students regularly go hungry, and seemingly straightforward aspects of school life – uniform, fundraising days, trips and the contents of pencil cases – are fraught with anxiety because families cannot afford them.

“We are seeing a huge rise in the number of young people coming into school without having had a proper breakfast,” said EIS education committee convener Susan Quinn. “In Glasgow, one child in two is now meeting at least one of the criteria that indicate they are living in poverty. Half of all the children in our largest city – that is why we must act.”

The leaflet, called Face Up to Child Poverty, claims that poverty is increasing in apparently well-heeled families and “hunger may be ever-present” for many not entitled to free school meals.

Children may be pale, fatigued, irritable, beset by headaches or struggling to concentrate: “In effect, their ability to learn is being seriously impeded...by lack of nutrition,” the advice states.

The EIS suggests that all school staff should be given advice on how to make a referral when worried about a pupil suffering from hunger.

The leaflet also says that forcing parents to buy uniforms – a measure intended to mask differences in income between students – may inadvertently be causing “financial hardship”.

It adds that teachers should go easier on pupils who are not wearing correct uniform, and suggests that clothing left in lost-property boxes should be recycled, with such schemes billed as environmentalism rather than charity to reduce stigma.

Schools should also never assume that families can afford even the most basic resources, such as pens and pencils, and be aware that many do not have internet access – 21 per cent of the Scottish population does not, according to figures cited at a University of Edinburgh research conference last week.

‘In every school’

The leaflet notes that 220,000 children in Scotland live in poverty, a figure predicted to rise to 322,000 in five years’ time if austerity continues. It also highlights a 400 per cent increase in the use of Scotland’s food banks over the past year, and says that the Red Cross is distributing food aid in the UK for the first time since the Second World War.

Glasgow secondary teacher Gillian Campbell-Thow, who has worked with many pupils from poorer backgrounds, said: “Any document that highlights the challenging issues around child poverty and the impact it has on education can only be a good thing, but it makes me tremendously sad that we need to do it.”

She added that every school had children who needed help. “We still hear teachers saying, ‘But we don’t have those kind of children.’ Really? I beg to differ.”

Stephen McKinney, a University of Glasgow expert on the impact of poverty on education, said the report was “nuanced and demonstrates a deep understanding of the extent of the problem”. He added that a “significant number of children” suffering from hunger were not recorded by the FSM measure.

Of the prospect that teachers may have to refer pupils to food banks, Professor McKinney said: “That’s quite an indictment of the society of Scotland at the moment.”

Read more about child poverty on pages 18-22

‘Abject poverty’

Evidence given by teachers to the EIS teaching union:

“Home visits by staff have seen abject poverty in which families are living without the basic items for living such as beds, carpets, curtains, fuel and insufficient food.”

“Pupils are unable to go on the annual residential trip, even though they are given a year to pay.”

“I recently ran a theatre trip and of the 50 pupils I took, six could not afford the £8 ticket – not including the pupils we knew would have to be subsidised…All were high-achieving Higher candidates who were mortified at the thought of admitting that £8 was a big deal to their families. There must be thousands slipping through the net.”

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