“Headteachers have spoken out about the hardship their students are facing in the wake of a Human Rights Watch report that highlighted the growing number of children in the UK going hungry.
Those working in schools said hunger had led to children stealing sachets of ketchup and exhibiting noticeable weight loss. They said that levels of poverty meant some schools had to provide breakfast clubs, food banks and clothes for pupils.
Geoff Barton, a former secondary school headteacher who leads the Association of School and College Leaders, described the situation as “astonishing” and “a national shame.” He added that tackling food poverty was becoming a main priority for a number of headteachers.
“The most striking conversation I had last year was with a group of headteachers in Lancashire – mostly secondary heads,” Barton said. “I asked what the biggest issue they were facing was, and usually they say funding or recruitment and retention. But the number one issue they said was hungry children. They were spending the first half of the day making sure children had breakfast. It’s shaming.”
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO, accused the UK government of breaching its international duty to keep people from hunger by pursuing “cruel and harmful policies” with no regard for the impact on children living in poverty.
The report concluded that tens of thousands of families did not have enough to eat, revealing that schools in Oxford were the latest to have turned to food banks to feed their pupils. The government dismissed the findings, saying it was misleading to present them as representative of the whole country.
Barton said: “The fact you even have some schools having to provide something as basic as food and becoming surrogate food banks … should leave us all with sense of national shame.” …
The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said: “All too often I’m hearing that schools are now acting as a fourth emergency service, forced to step in because the Tories have cut society’s safety net to shreds. It is a scandal that, in one of the richest countries in the world, there are children struggling to learn because of poverty and hunger.
“Our schools have suffered from years of cuts and are themselves increasingly relying on donations from parents. Cuts to public services and social security have combined with low pay, insecure work and rising costs to leave too many families on the breadline. It’s clear that, despite this prime minister’s claims, austerity is far from over for our children.
“A Labour government will take action, investing in the support children need and providing a free healthy school meal to all primary school pupils, so no one goes hungry at school.”
A government spokesperson said the HRW report was not representative of England as a whole, adding: “We spend £95bn a year on working age benefits and we’re supporting over 1 million of the country’s most disadvantaged children through free school meals. Meanwhile, we’ve confirmed that the benefit freeze will end next year.”