It was only when a tutor from Basingstoke College of Technology visited an absent student at his home that the picture became clear. After establishing that the student did not receive a bursary to support his studies because his mother was unable to fill in the application forms, the tutor discovered that there was no food in the house.
Action was swiftly taken, and the student’s family were referred to the local food bank. “He was just too proud to ask,” says Alexis Smith, the college’s director of student experience. “He achieved, and he is actually coming back next year, when in May, it looked like he would be a statistic.”
Nationally, more than one in 20 people aged 15 and over struggle to get enough to eat. According to FareShare, a charity that redistributes surplus food, the situation is getting worse. “In 12 months, we’ve seen the number of groups we work with increase by 44 per cent, and we supplied enough food to make up nearly 29 million meals in a year,” says chief executive Lindsay Boswell.
But it’s not just charities that feel compelled to help. According to a survey of college leaders by the Association of Colleges (AoC) in partnership with Tes, 13 per cent have a food bank on campus, and 86 per cent offer other kinds of support to students who cannot feed themselves.
Some colleges provide free toast and cereal at breakfast time; others offer as much as £4 a day to spend in the canteen, vouchers for the local food bank or even a trip to the supermarket with a member of staff.
The demand for support in Basingstoke has increased, says Smith. “When I first started, we were giving out one or two [food bank vouchers] a year, and last term alone it was 12 or 13. And those are for real emergencies – they have to be used on the same day. Students don’t like asking, so the fact they are asking shows how desperate [the situation] is.”
Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive at the AoC, says colleges are “a microcosm of wider society and, sadly, the increasing need for food banks in society is reflected in the increasing need for food banks in colleges”.
She adds: “In terms of how hunger impacts on education, this can be significant – absence and lateness due to tiredness or weakness, a lack of concentration in class. I can remember one or two occasions of students passing out at college.”
Lord has also frequently seen adult students not eating for days to ensure their children have sufficient food.
The impact of the support colleges provide goes beyond addressing learners’ physical needs. “It’s about [students] having the confidence that you can continue because you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from or how you’re going to feed your children tonight,” Lord says. “And it is about feeling part of a community that is looking out for you.”
Lancaster and Morecambe College has a food bank on site. Maggie Dodd, director for personal development and welfare, says the college has handed out “overnight bags” of food and essentials, vouchers to the local food bank and clothes to around 20 learners so far this academic year.
“What we [have] found in the last couple of years is that we have young people in crisis,” says Dodd. So as well as giving out “overnight bags”, the college has also started a clothes bank for young people who may, for example, have interviews to go to – or who find themselves homeless.
The bags contain “kettle food”, such as instant noodles, and staples to allow students and their families to cook a meal, Dodd says, as well as toiletries and sanitary products. “But we also try to put treats in them,” she adds. “Life is hard enough.”
Grimsby Institute offers students a free breakfast, and the college also steps in when necessary to provide toiletries or a free meal. Principal Debra Gray says the breakfast was introduced in the past couple of years “because we were seeing a growing need. We want [students] to have what they need – whether that is a box of Tampax or breakfast.”
Emily Chapman, vice president for further education at the NUS students’ union, says there is “definitely a problem with poverty in the education sector, particularly in FE”.
This, she believes, is exacerbated by the lack of maintenance support available for FE students. A recent survey by the NUS showed that almost half of students spent over half their weekly allowance on travel to their institution. “They literally have to choose between getting to college and eating,” Chapman says. “That is how bad it is. Those are the choices FE students have to make.”