Sam Grayson was collecting her daughter from school when a teacher stopped her and thrust a blanket into her hands: “I’m really worried about the children being home and being cold,” she said.
A single mother from Middlesbrough, in north-east England, Grayson is one of many parents increasingly turning to schools to provide food and childcare to make ends meet as the cost of living crisis intensifies.
Food inflation reached 14.6 per cent in September, a record high, with economic conditions across the UK worsening.
By providing “breakfast clubs” — before-school groups where children receive a nutritious hot meal — discounted school trips and free after-class childcare, Brambles Primary Academy has become a lifeline for the likes of Grayson.
But with budgets already overstretched, teachers are warning there is only so much they can do to support pupils. Analysts, meanwhile, have said that rising hardship among primary age children can affect their life-long chances and hamper the UK’s aim to build a thriving skills-based economy.
According to a recent survey by teachers’ union NASUWT, six in 10 teachers reported that more children were coming to school hungry this summer than last year. Three quarters said they had witnessed an increase in the number of children with behavioural problems and 65 per cent said a greater number lacked proper equipment.
“There is such a high need,” said Darren Higgins, Brambles’ acting headteacher. “Schools take an element of that on because it’s what’s best for the children.”
That need is forcing some families into making difficult choices. About one in four parents cut back on food last month, according to a survey by polling company YouGov commissioned by the charities Food Foundation and National Energy Action — one in 10 said they had eaten cold meals to save on energy.
Catherine Millar, north of England school officer for Magic Breakfast, a charity that provides breakfast clubs around the UK in co-operation with local businesses such as Greggs, said headteachers were “terrified of what winter will bring . . and schools are already seeing children going hungry”.
The rising hardship that is evident in schools is a driver of the widening education gap between disadvantaged students and their peers, said Janeen Hayat, director of collective action at Fair Education Alliance charity.
Attainment in reading fell from 62 per cent to 51 per cent among seven-year-olds pupils from a disadvantaged background last academic year, compared with 78 per cent to 72 per cent for more affluent students, according to government assessment data.
Government figures identified disadvantaged children as those who were receiving free school meals, which are an income-based benefit available to families earning less than £7,400 a year after tax.
In the long term, falling behind at primary school can limit the prospects of children over the course of their life, said economists. According to a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, the wealthiest 20 per cent of children are more than twice as likely to graduate from university by the age of 26, compared with the poorest. Those with degrees go on to earn twice as much as those without GCSEs, the research found.
The think-tank said that tackling educational inequality is essential for raising the UK’s productivity and creating the skills-based economy necessary to foster future growth.
The IFS estimated that real-terms spending per student will be 3 per cent below 2010 levels in two years’ time, with teachers warning that further cuts in funding will have negative consequences for pupils’ wellbeing. “It’s increasingly difficult to even maintain the status quo,” Hayat said. “We’ve heard across our membership that schools are having to scale back or cut spending on interventions to address these challenges.”
The government said it had taken action against rising costs by providing more than £37bn in support, targeted towards vulnerable households in need, including by making payments to households in response to the cost of living crisis.
It had also expanded free school meal access while investing up to £24mn in a national school breakfast programme, which has funded breakfasts in more than 2,000 of the most vulnerable schools.
In inner city London at King’s Cross Primary Academy, 17 per cent of pupils were already on free school meals before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The figure has since risen to 41 per cent.
“There’s a lot of distraught parents,” headteacher Emyr Fairburn said. “They’ve never had to use a food bank before . . . Now they’re worrying about school uniforms,” he added.
King’s Cross Academy Trust, the school’s sponsorship body, has been recently been covering the cost of free meals for all pupils at the primary school in response to the cost of living crisis.
“Children pick up on their parents’ stress,” he said. “This is going to have as much impact on learning as Covid did . . . It’s not really our job to [provide the extra support] but they’re [the children] not making the progress we’d expect them to.”
But with energy costs still rising, Higgins said the financial sustainability of the school’s current operations is an “unknown”.