Nearly all teachers will have come across a pupil who looks grey and withdrawn, and who struggles to concentrate.
This could be for a range of very complex reasons – but increasingly, teachers say, it is simply because the child is hungry.
“Sometimes the kid will say, ‘I have tummy ache,’” says Caroline Rodgers, headteacher of Brockley Primary School in Chesterfield. “You ask what they had for their breakfast – sometimes they’ll say, ‘Mum didn’t have any food.’ Other times you just get that stare, and they don’t need to say it.”
The signs can be even more obvious; teachers are coming across the heart-breaking sight of pupils rummaging through school bins for half-eaten food, and cramming their pockets full of free fruit, because they don’t get any at home.
Over the past decade or so, food has become a highly charged topic for schools. In the mid-2000s, we had the spectacle of parents smuggling fish and chips to their children through the gates of a school taking part in Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign.
And there have been a series of major political rows over the number of children who should be given a free meal at school – currently, all infant pupils are eligible, along with older pupils from low-income households.
Now teachers are warning that more and more children are coming to school ill-equipped for learning because they aren’t getting enough to eat at home. “Teachers are telling us that they are increasingly seeing children coming to school hungry because they haven’t been able to have a nutritious breakfast,” says Celia Dignan, senior policy adviser at the NEU teaching union.
Many teachers have taken it upon themselves to hand out food to children who they know are suffering. Some schools are even dishing out bigger dinners to pupils they know are at risk of malnutrition – almost a reverse version of Oliver Twist.
“A lot of schools are having to supplement meals – buying food for children, making sure they give out bigger portions if they know that’s their only meal,” says Dignan.
Unions and charities blame the apparent increase in hungry pupils on austerity measures and changes to the benefits system. Ministers may beg to differ.
'Some families are really struggling'
Whatever the underlying cause, it is clear that schools are scraping together money from stretched budgets to subsidise food banks and extra meals for pupils. And that comes on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds the government spends on feeding pupils.
But is any of this making a significant difference, or is it merely scratching the surface? Many school leaders clearly feel that the extra they can do is vital, judging by the extent of their intervention. Rodgers’ school holds holiday clubs, funded by the local authority but heavily reliant on staff and community volunteers. Every child has a packed lunch each day and is sent home at the end of the scheme with any leftover bread and snacks. At Christmas, when the clubs are not held, every pupil in the school is given a “goody bag” containing a tin of chocolates, potatoes, chutney, cheese and bread.
Rodgers accepts that her school goes much further than its traditional mission, but she doesn’t think she has much choice. “The changes to the benefits system – I’m not sure how fair they are,” she says. “As a result, some families are really struggling.”
And she has no doubt about the difference her school is making. Asked what would happen if it did not provide the extra food, she replies succinctly: “It would be terrible.”
Meanwhile, David Moran, chief executive of E-Act multi-academy trust, is trying to raise £1 million from private sponsors to increase his schools’ extra-curricular offerings, including offering free evening meals to pupils.
“We start talking about breakfast,” he told Tes last year. “Well, what about dinner? How many of our children sit around a table at night and have dinner? Have a proper dinner. Is that something we should be doing?”
Schools are right to take the issue of hunger seriously, judging by international research. The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), published last December, found that a quarter of 10-year-olds in England reported feeling hungry every day or nearly every day. This group scored 45 points lower, on average, in reading tests than their peers who reported never feeling hungry, the study showed.
A similar link – but for secondary school pupils – was found in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey, which looked at the performance of 15-year-olds. Boys in the UK who ate breakfast scored, on average, 16 more points in science tests than those who routinely skipped their morning meal, after taking account of their socioeconomic backgrounds. For girls, there was a 14-point difference.
However, the research is far from conclusive, according to Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute. “International evidence shows that there are links between hunger in the classroom and lower attainment – with further known effects on pupils’ health and behaviour,” she says.
“However, in England, more research needs to be done to establish whether there is a clear connection between food insufficiency, poor nutrition and the educational outcomes of pupils.”
Perhaps we don’t need hard and fast research evidence that hunger affects attainment. After all, many teachers will have witnessed the difference it makes to their pupils.
“Hungry students often sit with their arms folded on the desk, tired, even at the start of the day or lesson,” says Peter Shreeve, a languages teacher at Cowes Enterprise College on the Isle of Wight, and branch secretary for the NEU (ATL section). “They are often disorganised – missing equipment – and often late to lessons, and struggle to remain fully engaged until the end of the day,” he adds.
His experience echoes that of many teachers who took part in a recent NEU survey, in which nine in 10 respondents said poverty – including not having enough to eat at home – was having a “significant effect” on pupils’ learning.
Dignan says: “A lot of members say that, once children are given fruit, their attention picks up and their concentration improves.”
Breakfast – the most important meal of the day?
Let’s assume for a minute that hungry pupils are less equipped for learning than those who eat three square meals a day. What can, and should, be done to ensure that more pupils fall into the latter camp?
There is clear evidence that breakfast clubs work – at least for primary pupils. “There’s a logic if you look at the raw economics of it – it’s a very efficient way of ensuring the kids have the energy they need,” says Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, a research body that has tested the impact of the Magic Breakfast project, which provides breakfasts in schools. The government recently announced it is ploughing £26 million into the scheme.
The need for pupils to be well-fed at the start of the day shouldn’t even be up for debate, suggests Sir Kevan. “There is a very clear neuroscience line here, that you need to be fuelled to learn,” he says. “If you have hungry or not well-fed kids, that will have an impact on your capacity to learn. That is unarguable.”
But what about later in the day, when the effects of that free breakfast have worn off? Many primary schools typically focus on subjects like English and maths in the morning, when concentration levels are highest, rather than after lunch.
So should more pupils be given free school lunches, to get them through the afternoon? This is an approach that Dignan says many NEU members would support.
Currently, all infant school pupils can claim a free school meal (FSM), as well as older children from low-income households. Changes made this year to coincide with the introduction of Universal Credit will see around 160,000 older children lose out on a free school meal – but 210,000 will gain eligibility.
Despite the net gain, Dignan suggests the overall numbers should be increased further, at least to cover all junior school pupils.
“A lot of teachers have mentioned the distress that [Year 3] children experience when they no longer have FSM,” she says. But aside from the extra costs this would incur, some people would inevitably oppose taxpayers having to pay for the lunches of yet more middle-class children.
Perhaps a compromise would be to extend FSM eligibility to a more limited extent. But, judging by a 2011 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Centre for Social Research and Bryson Purdon Social Research, merely extending FSM without making the offering universal would have limited educational benefits.
The study found that key stage 1 and 2 pupils in schools where all children were given FSM made between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas. By contrast, expanding the eligibility criteria to cover more, but not all, pupils did not significantly affect attainment.
While the universal infant FSM policy has proved controversial, there is far more consensus over the benefits of feeding pupils during the holidays; for example, through holiday clubs targeted at children who, tragically, depend on FSM to sustain them in term time.
Provision of these clubs is patchy, but a bill is currently making its way through Parliament that would force local authorities in disadvantaged areas to provide them. The School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill, which is sponsored by Labour MP Frank Field and is thought to have cross-party support from 130 MPs, is due to have a second reading in the House of Commons next Friday.
The NEU supports the bill – if it comes with extra funding for local councils.
But, however self-evident it might seem, there is little proof that feeding children during the long holidays will help them academically, come September.
A Northumbria University study last year was the first UK-based research to identify a “summer learning loss” among children in disadvantaged areas, but it did not investigate whether hunger played a part in this.
So what can and should schools be doing to alleviate pupils’ hunger – and should more education funding really be spent on it?
Child hunger is arguably a far bigger societal problem than the education system can deal with alone – particularly at a time when headteachers are having to agonise over every penny their schools are spending.
However, schools are more than exam training camps; they play a much bigger role within the communities they serve. In any case, if they don’t step in to help, then who will? “One of the really frightening things is schools are saying, ‘We’re providing all these anti-poverty services but won’t be able to afford to continue this,’” says Dignan.
Cuts to statutory and voluntary services mean it has been left to schools to try to ensure that children are well-fed, she says, adding: “If schools aren’t able to support families, where do they go? They will literally be starving.”