Headteachers say they have never seen anything like it: a “perfect storm” of rising poverty, higher prices and shrinking school budgets resulting in more hungry children in classrooms but fewer resources to help them.
While the proportion of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in England has jumped from 15% in 2019 to more than 22% this year, headteachers say the numbers of “invisible hungry” – from families in poverty but not poor enough to qualify – has also increased.
On top of the 1.9 million children eligible for FSM, mainly because they live in households receiving benefits and with an annual income below £7,400, the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there are 800,000 children in families below the poverty line, on universal credit or other benefits but missing out on FSM.
Rebecca Curtis, the principal of Ark Elvin academy in London, said: “FSM eligibility is such a blunt tool – it doesn’t define poverty in London. The vast majority of our children come from the working poor. After paying the rent, even a couple on £30,000 a year with children are living in poverty.
“We see children who are not eating lunch, waiting until they get out of school so they can buy something cheaper than our school lunches – usually a piece of chicken and chips for £1.”
Headteachers say the effects of hunger on their students is stark. “Children who come to school hungry are going to struggle to concentrate, struggle to learn and struggle to behave, and that makes our job harder,” said the head of a state secondary school in the West Midlands.
“I’ve got growing 14- and 15-year-old boys who cannot get enough to eat, their parents can’t afford the £2.60 we charge for lunches each day, and that causes all sorts of problems – stealing food, stealing money, all because they don’t have enough to eat.”
Even those receiving free lunches are often from what are defined as “very low food security” households, where family members have to skip meals or eat less because of no money or other sources of food.
The problem extends to the wealthiest parts of England, such as Wokingham or Windsor, where about one in 10 pupils are eligible for FSM. But the numbers soar in more deprived parts of the country: Islington, Blackpool and Manchester have more than 40% of all children eligible. In the north-east of England, nearly one in three pupils are eligible, compared with about one in six in the south-east.
But schools’ ability to help is hamstrung by the costs crisis that is affecting them as much as the families of the children they teach. Some secondary schools have seen their energy bills triple this year despite government assistance, while an unexpected increase in teachers’ pay has added hundreds of thousands of pounds to wage bills.
“Everyone knows about the energy crisis, but MPs don’t understand that this year’s pay rises were unfunded [by government],” said Bryn Thomas, the headteacher at Wolverley CofE secondary school in Worcestershire.
Kat Pugh, the headteacher of St Marylebone’s school in central London, said her school had planned to provide free breakfasts to all pupils who needed them, not just those receiving FSM.
“The financial blow of the unfunded pay awards has challenged our ability to provide breakfast for free to other students, notably the estimated 30% of students who are also financially disadvantaged while not qualifying for free school meals,” Pugh said. “We cannot afford to do this and we are working hard with local businesses and partners to fundraise for it instead.”
Councils, another source of funding for families and schools in difficulty, are themselves facing budget pressures, having already experienced more than a decade of retrenchment and cuts since the start of austerity policies in 2010. The Local Government Association estimates that rising prices and wages have added £2.4bn in costs to local authority budgets this year.
The chef Jamie Oliver is among those backing the Food Foundation’s “feed the future” campaign for FSM eligibility to be extended to all children from families on benefits, with Oliver describing the policy in England as the “meanest” in the UK.
The governments in Scotland and Wales have said they will extend free school meals to all primary schoolchildren. In England, only infants in the first three years of primary school, from reception to year 2, receive free lunches across the board.
The campaign headed by Oliver has drawn bipartisan support, with Richard Walker, the chief executive of the Iceland supermarket chain, who is bidding to become a Conservative MP, publicly endorsing a FSM extension as a “critical priority” for deprived children.
Michael Gove, the former education secretary who introduced universal infant free school meals, has also endorsed an extension, saying last month: “What we can do is extend access to free school meals for every child in a family in receipt of universal credit” at a cost of £500m a year.
Bridget Philipson, the shadow education secretary, has pledged that a Labour government would fund free school breakfasts for all primary pupils.