Headteachers are expressing their concern over the surge in numbers of children attending school without proper nourishment. This is happening due to a combination of factors, described by the professionals as a “perfect storm” of increased poverty, higher prices and an alarming reduction in school budgets. They claim that this issue is worsening, as while the percentage of children entitled to free school meals (FSM) has risen from 15% to over 22% in England, more disproportionately affected youngsters from families in poverty but not eligible for FSM have also increased. These combined factors put many children at risk of starvation caused by inadequate and insufficient resources to meet their needs.
The statistics of FSM eligible children stand at 1.9 million, mainly due to households receiving incomes below £7,400 annually. However, the Child Poverty Action Group suggests that 800,000 children in families below the poverty line, on universal credit or other benefits, miss out on FSM, dramatically exacerbating the situation. Ark Elvin Academy’s London-based principal, Rebecca Curtis, outlines that the blunt usage of FSM eligibility does not encapsulate poverty in London where the majority of underprivileged families comprise of ‘working poor’. Thus, they struggle to make ends meet even after paying rent. With chicken and chips priced at only £1, children wait to purchase their lunches, proving to be a wrong precedent towards nourishing their health, both physically and mentally.
Headteachers are increasingly noticing the detrimental effect hunger has on their students’ academic performance. The lack of concentration, loss of interest in lessons, and a lack of motivation in the classroom creates additional complexities for educators. At times, children resort to malpractice such as stealing food or money because they are unable to afford their meals; many receiving free lunches hail from households enduring the ‘very low food security’ phase. The repercussions extend to areas which are considered affluent, like Wokingham and Windsor, where approximately one in ten pupils receive FSM. In stark contrast, impoverished regions such as Islington, Blackpool, and Manchester have over 40% of eligible children.
However, schools are hamstrung by a financial crisis that is hindering their ability to address the problem. Despite government assistance, some secondary schools’ energy bills have tripled this year, and the sudden increase in teachers’ pay added thousands of pounds to wage bills, further exacerbating the problem. Bryn Thomas, the headteacher of Wolverley CofE secondary school in Worcestershire, reported that this year’s pay raises were unfunded by the government, reflecting the growing epidemic of financial pressure amongst teaching professionals.
Therefore, while schools aim to provide free meals and regularly assess the nutritional needs of their students, financial barriers pose significant obstacles towards strategy implementation. Kat Pugh, the headteacher of St Marylebone’s School in central London, shared that the school had formulated a financial plan to provide free breakfasts to students who need them, even beyond those entitled to FSM. However, with the new disclosure of unfunded pay awards this year, this has created a financial strain, with Pugh working towards raising funds through local businesses and partners.
The issue is growing, and the Food Foundation has launched a "Feed the Future" campaign to extend FSM eligibility to all families receiving benefits. In England, the policy only extends to primary school children in their first three years, with Scotland and Wales extending the free lunches offer to all primary school children. Meanwhile, councils are under financial duress, having undergone a decade of cutbacks and financial retrenchment under austerity policies, with rising prices and wages adding £2.4bn in costs to local authority budgets this year. Influential culinary personality Jamie Oliver supports extending FSM eligibility, calling the policy in England the "meanest" across the UK.
Michael Gove, the previous education secretary who implemented the policy of free school meals for all young children, has recently expressed his support for the expansion of this program. He suggested that every child whose family is eligible for universal credit should also have access to free school meals. This initiative has been estimated to require an annual funding of £500 million.
Bridget Philipson, the current shadow education secretary, has promised that a Labour government would take responsibility for providing free breakfasts to all primary school students.