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Shocking state of poverty-hit schoolchildren

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“Bereavement due to suicide of a parent has affected more children recently.”

The National Association of Head Teachers, the school leaders’ union, and the Child Poverty Action Group have written to all English MPs to appeal to them to take more urgent action to bring child poverty to an end.

The letter contains thirteen examples from school leaders about the impact of austerity on schoolchildren.

And the letter points out that children are now more aware of and worried by their parents’ money troubles, are often hungry or upset and not in no fit state to learn or embarrassed about their poverty and ashamed.

This is not what we want for our children.

The letter:

Dear MP,

More than 4 million children are growing up in poverty in the UK today and 70 per cent of these children are living in poverty despite having parents who are in work.

The face of child poverty is also getting younger as more than half of children growing up in poverty are under 5 years old.

Concern is growing amongst school leaders that the very youngest pupils are so aware of their families’ financial problems that they are struggling to learn and enjoy school.

More than four hundred school leaders responded to our call for evidence, and their comments paint a vivid and heart-breaking picture of the impact of austerity on pupils’ lives.

School leaders’ union NAHT and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) would like to share some of these comments with you:

“Children are more aware of their parents’ money and troubles – it worries them.”  Sandwell, West Midlands;

“Children are just not ready to learn. They are embarrassed and ashamed.”  Swadlincote, Derbyshire;

“Children are hungry, so we feed them breakfast and lunch and run a foodbank. Otherwise they cannot learn. Families are living in one room in shared houses with several other families. Families are sharing a bed. This means children are not getting a night’s sleep. Children are embarrassed by their clothing, so they act out or appear withdrawn.” Brent, Greater London;

“Children are too tired and hungry to concentrate. Social problems when having multiple house moves. Increased absence as can’t afford transport costs.” Manchester;

“More children are arriving at school hungry and in inappropriate clothing.  We now provide a free breakfast club to address this. Fewer of our children are eligible for free school meals. We have parents coming in in tears for foodbank vouchers or for a lift to the one stop shop for emergency gas / electric tokens. We do have parents asking us to lend them money.” Bolton, Lancashire;

“I have observed children emotionally battered and unable to learn, pupils too hungry to think and deprived of sleep due to a lack of heating, bedding and clothing.

I’ve seen parents weep because they can’t afford uniform or pay the dinner bill.

I’ve seen a pupil eat a biscuit for breakfast and have a mouldy piece of bread as their only lunch in their box and have parents break down when confronted as they haven’t eaten all day either.

I’ve observed pupils who are bright but famished, exhausted, and whose parents are struggling completely opt out of learning as their only goal is to get through the day and have some food, attention or warmth.” Newhall, Derbyshire;

“Many families work and therefore earn just enough money to disentitle them, and the school to Pupil Premium funding.

“While we encourage our families to be self-sufficient the level of deprivation amongst our families is huge, with a significant number of families living in cramped and unhealthy conditions.

“Children often arrive at school with shoes that have holes in them, and as a school we cannot afford to fund the replacements for each child as we wish we could.” Swindon, Wiltshire;

“The attendance of the children who are living in poverty is low. Parents tend to keep them off school more – we have a child who regularly misses school due to not having a clean uniform, despite having explained to the parents that it really doesn’t matter.” Ashby De La Zouch, Leicestershire;

“This year has seen additional strain and emotional distress for children as we have seen families being evicted and made homeless. This has not been the case in my 20 years at the school but in the last 2 months 5 families have been impacted upon in this manner. This has caused significant distress and upset for the children.”  Sheldon, West Midlands;

“We have parents and carers who have narrowly missed the FSM threshold as they want to work. However, because the jobs aren’t that well-paid and many live in rented accommodation, they struggle to make ends meet.

“We have lots of families that benefit from flexible charging for school meals, but we do not receive funding for this – we have just made this decision, as a school, to ensure that children have a cooked meal every day in school.” Wolverhampton, West Midlands;

“Some children are too hungry or too tired to learn.

“Some families are so stressed about money that they totally miss their children’s emotional needs.

“Many more children are witnesses to domestic abuse due to increased financial pressure in the home.

“Our family support officer can only see a fraction of the families that need her. For 225 pupils we get 2 hrs per week of family support. It is woefully inadequate.” Somerset;

“We have children coming to school hungry. Families asking for essential items. Families accessing food banks that didn’t do before. More families in hostels or hotels due to homelessness.” Nottingham

“Children are tired, irritable, insecure. Not accessing learning as many pick up on arguments, worries about eviction.

“Bereavement due to suicide of a parent has affected more children recently.

“Illness and early death of grandparents due to poverty related issues affecting learning behaviour and concentration.” Milton Keynes.

Polling conducted alongside the research showed that:

75 per cent of school leaders reported seeing an increase or significant increase in the number of parents coming to school to ask for financial support or support with essentials in the last five years;

81 per cent reported seeing an increase or significant increase in the number of children coming to school hungry in the last five years;

86 per cent reported that they provide more or significantly more support than five years ago;

85 per cent felt that this level of support was not sustainable for their school to continue with for the next five years.

This country’s record on child poverty is truly shocking. Austerity is not just a temporary phase for some families to endure, it is a day to day reality.

Decades of under-investment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and skilled work have made it impossible for people in many areas of the country to get out of the poverty trap.

Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts to improve equality of opportunity. But it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.

Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes. Similarly, schools are less able to access local authority support for pupils and families that need it.

As the Social Mobility Commission reported last week, inequality will remain entrenched in the UK “from birth to work” unless the government takes urgent action.

We know that many policy-makers in Westminster are aware of this crisis, however the human stories are often lost amongst the statistics. We hope that this letter, with its real-life examples, will compel you to take more urgent action to bring child poverty to an end.

Yours sincerely

Paul Whiteman, General Secretary, NAHT

Judy Shaw, National President, NAHT

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group

Feel free to forward this to your MP and ask them what action they are going to take, and when.

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