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Cost Of Living Crisis Means Children Will “Arrive At School Too Hungry To Learn”

Pupils are baring the brunt of the cost of living crisis as the squeeze on family finances takes hold (Alamy)

5 min read

The cost of living crisis has become “a frontline issue for schools” according to an education expert who says he has heard “harrowing” stories from teachers.

Lee Elliot Major, the country's first Professor of Social Mobility at Exeter University, said there are growing reports of pupils unable to afford the bus fare to get to school or to buy lunch, with the problems set to get worse this winter as inflation continues to rise and energy prices set to spike.

Speaking to PoliticsHome he said post-pandemic there are “the highest absence rates in living memory, many of which are the poorest pupils”, and that he fears this will damage the life chances of disadvantaged children, while middle-class kids are insulated from many of these same issues.

His concern is echoed by teaching bodies, who have urged the government to "get a grip" on the snowballing crisis. 

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told PoliticsHome: “Teachers are already seeing the effects of rising poverty with children arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate. 

“The cost-of-living crisis now adds to the challenge and makes matters more urgent.”

Bousted accused the government is “sleepwalking through a crisis”, and called on whoever becomes the next Prime Minister to “get a grip of this situation by extending the provision of Free School Meals to all children growing up in families on Universal Credit, as well as removing the benefit cap and disgraceful two-child limit”.

Joanna Parry, UNISON national education officer, which represents thousands of school staff, said: “Teaching assistants and other low-paid school staff were on the brink long before the cost-of-living crisis. For many the soaring prices on top of years of pay freezes and cuts have made a terrible situation intolerable.

“School staff are using food banks or leaving the profession for better paid jobs in retail or hospitality to make ends meet.”

She added: “Headteachers can’t fill support staff jobs and pupils are missing out on the Covid catch-up support they urgently need.

“Ministers must acknowledge and tackle the classroom crisis to stop any further damage.”

Professor Elliot Major, former chief executive of the Sutton Trust educational charity, said he has been picking up “horrifying and shocking stories” as he gives lectures for teachers and from visiting schools before the summer break.

“It scares me, to be honest,” he said. “In all the years that I've been working in this area, I don't think I've heard so many harrowing stories about children not being able to afford what I think most people would see as the very basics.

“Things like paying for the bus fare to get to school, paying for food or getting breakfast before you start school.

“I've even heard stories from teachers about how some basic things have been taken from school, including tissues.”

He said some older pupils are eschewing sixth-form or college and taking minimum wage or zero hour contract jobs to help their families financially as the economic squeeze is being felt.

“I think this is really troubling,” Elliot Major explains. “And the reason I say that is when we do the analysis of what drives educational attainment, of course the quality of teaching has an impact but a profound amount is shaped by out of school factors, and whether you turn up to school ready to learn.

“The big fear is that the cost of living crisis means many children will fall further behind because they're not ready to learn when they turn up for school, coupled with the fact that many young people aren't even attending school.”

He is calling on the government to help pay for more breakfast clubs at primary schools to get pupils into the classroom and ready to learn, as well as a vast expansion of the National Tutoring Programme that was brought in to help children catch up on lost learning due to Covid-19.

“I'm one of the champions of getting university undergraduates to help with one-to-one tutoring for pupils,” Elliot Major said.

“I think we could do far more to provide a sort of ‘tutoring army’ of students to just give teachers some more capacity to help children, in particular to learn the basics of writing and reading and maths, because what schools are finding is that many children are falling behind in those foundational skills.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise that schools and families are facing increased costs due to the unprecedented recent rise in inflation, which is why we are providing over £37billion to help households with the greatest need, and supporting families with essentials such as food and utility bills through the Household Support Fund.

“We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, and continue to keep eligibility under review.

“This financial year alone, core school funding is rising by £4bn compared to last year, a 7 per cent cash terms per pupil increase."

The government said it has expanded access to free school meals to almost two million pupils, as well as feeding 1.25 million more young children following the introduction of universal infant free school meals in 2014.

They added that up to £24m is being spent on the National School Breakfast Programme, while the starting salary for a teacher outside London is set to rise by 8.9 per cent for 2022/23, and overall the total core school budget will increase to £56.8bn by 2024-25, a £7bn cash increase compared with 2021-22.

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