How can schools help with the cost of living crisis?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 16 June 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Free School Lunches; Cost of Living Crisis

In a  joint letter, sent to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi by education unions representing one million school staff in England,  it has been said that vulnerable children not receiving free school meals were facing a "real barrier to learning".

They have called for all children from families who receive universal credit to be eligible as part of an "urgent" expansion of the scheme. Currently around one in five pupils - 1.7 million children - receive free school meals.

Teachers in schools can see the real impact of the problem first hand quoting that;

"We see the devastating reality of children coming to school unable to afford to buy lunch, because their family circumstances means they fall outside the restrictive free school meal eligibility criteria,"

In England, all infant state school pupils up to Year Two can get free school meals during term time.

For English pupils in Year Three and above, those living in households on income-related benefits (such as universal credit) are eligible, as long as their annual household income does not exceed £7,400 after tax. That figure does not include welfare payments.

In Northern Ireland the cap is set at £14,000 a year.

Dr Nick Capstick, head teacher of Drove Primary School in Wiltshire, chair of an independent working group, the School Food Review who is a signatory to the letter to the government , says that children are missing more school because of "illness and poor oral hygiene caused by inadequate diet".

He states that; "it's increasingly common that children will come in having not eaten from the night before and also being quite confused, disorientated, and really lacking in energy to have a really productive day at school.

His group argue strongly, that universal free schools meals are a simple way of eradicating this situation."
Give more pupils free school meals, teachers in England say - BBC News

Research shows that serving a free school meal for one year increased children’s intake of healthy foods, especially among children with lower socio-economic status. In Northern Ireland the EA Catering Service is responsible for the provision of school meals in grant-aided schools. 180,000 meals are produced daily, with meals served to children of all ages from nursery to post primary and for those pupils attending special schools.

The NAS UWT’ Dr Patrick Roach has highlighted some of the pressures on schools caused by this situation.

 “Teachers and schools leaders do not need to be reminded of the stark effects of this crisis on their pupils and in their own lives.

They see it every day in their schools and in their classrooms. Children whose parents find themselves in insecure jobs who are struggling to make ends meet. Many relying on food banks and struggling to pay their bills and keep their children clothed and fed. Hungry pupils can’t concentrate on their learning and the knock-on effects on behaviour are making a challenging job more stressful as teachers deal with the fallout.

Schools are struggling to deal with the fallout as they find themselves taking on more of the roles to try and support (families), roles which were often supported by local authorities but have been stripped back due to more than a decade of austerity”
NASUWT | Teachers know stark reality of cost of living crisis

 Here in Northern Ireland, The Nolan Show has highlighted the real life challenges of low income families here and called on local politicians to “park political differences” and ensure measures are in place to get all possible available funding help to those now in desperate straits. Naomi Long Alliance Leader, in response to Stephen Nolan’s challenge to politicians to act, points out that there is 600 million pounds in central funding which must be accessed. She argues that the re-establishment of the Executive is the quickest solution to get the emergency funding to those in need.

University of Ulster School of Law’s Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick who closely monitors the effect of the cost of living crisis on poorer families in Northern Ireland has spoken with the BBC in an effort to emphasise that responsibility for the current cost of living crisis sits squarely with the government. She argues that if immediate action isn't taken, we will witness a destitution surge of mammoth proportions. She quotes a recent report by the National Institute for Social and Economic Research (NIESR) which suggest that destitution in Northern Ireland is set to rise and is already more than double the rate in other parts of the UK. This equates to around 25,000 more households who will be unable to meet their basic needs (food, light, heat and products needed to meet basic hygiene needs). 
Poverty is a "hidden pandemic" in Northern Ireland - Ulster University Poverty is a "hidden pandemic" in Northern Ireland - Ulster University

When the pandemic began and the scale of the crisis became apparent, political differences in Northern Ireland became less important than the need to protect the most vulnerable in our society. We spent a lot of time worrying about the closure of schools and the effect on the life chances of children in disadvantaged groups. Surely this economic crisis is on a par now with the pandemic in terms of the potential harm to those same groups?

During the worst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland schools were havens of peace and stability and children felt safe and cared for. Learning and school life continued and this helped keep the fabric of society intact. While these current difficult circumstances are not comparable in terms of violence and threats to life and property, they are bad enough to ask us to focus on our priorities as a society and give the funding to schools to provide the safety net for children which is clearly needed. Providing free school meals out of term time and expanding the range of families that can access them overall is an immediate measure which can bring relief to struggling parents.

This article is correct at 16/06/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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