Schools providing ‘basic needs’ like food to struggling families, report finds

It highlighted ‘weaknesses’ in the welfare systems that had seen families in need of support during the pandemic.

Free school meals
Free school meals

Schools have been providing “basic needs” to families, such as food and clothes, amid the pandemic due to “weaknesses” in the welfare system that urgently need repair, a report suggests.

More families in England turned to schools as an important source of support due to pressures linked to the Covid-19 crisis, according to research by UCL’s Institute of Education (IoE).

Schools serving populations with high levels of poverty shouldered a higher burden in addressing families’ problems relating to food insecurity and inadequate housing – including a flat which was “infested with rats”.

Researchers have warned that pupil premium funding, which is targeted at poorer children, does not cover “the work schools do to support children living in poverty or struggling with difficult issues at home”.

Schools reported dealing with pupils in need of food and clothing, families in housing with inadequate space and resources to maintain learning at home, and children experiencing domestic violence.

The report includes in-depth interviews with 50 parents and staff across seven primary schools in England, which were located in parts of the country that had experienced higher or lower prevalence of Covid-19 from March 2020 to March 2021 and varied in the number of pupils receiving free school meals.

Addressing food insecurity was the most immediate priority for all the schools and they went to considerable lengths to ensure pupils received at least one meal a day – in some cases distributing food directly to the door.

One headteacher said: “What we’ve noticed over time was that the people who were coming to our food pantry, and we still run it now, weren’t the free school meal parents. It was this tier just above, the people who’d been furloughed, the people who had always had a job.”

Another head said: “It was making sure those basic needs were actually met and families had food on the table.”

The research, carried out between May and August 2021, suggests headteachers find themselves “shouldering significant responsibilities within networks of support that have themselves fragmented”.

Schools raised concerns about children living in inadequate housing which was “unsuitable” for learning.

A headteacher said: “[They] lived in a flat, which was temporary accommodation, that was infested with rats. And holding all of that was really, really tough because she was in danger and so were her children – and living with rats. I mean, it was just awful.”

School sign
Schools reported that many of those they had to help had been plunged into difficulty by the pandemic (PA)

The authors say the current funding settlement on offer to schools is “not enough” to fix the many issues the school system in England faces and which Covid-19 has “so sharply revealed”.

The report adds: “Recovery from Covid-19 is a long-term process not a short-term sprint.”

Co-author Professor Gemma Moss, from the IoE, said: “We know Covid-19 has directly and indirectly affected schools and families in very different ways.

“Communities where children were already living in poverty but also those where families suddenly faced new financial distress due to Covid-19 have been very badly hit.

“Funding offered through pupil premium does not cover or adequately reflect the work schools do to support children living in poverty or struggling with difficult issues at home.

“That families are so reliant on schools highlights fundamental weaknesses in our current welfare system that urgently need repair.”

The report says: “Schools recognise levels of poverty that the current welfare system ignores, precisely because they are so closely connected to their communities.”

It calls for a “fully costed investment plan” for education for the longer term to address real needs.

Co-author Professor Alice Bradbury, also from the IoE, added: “Our research shows that the lack of services that support children, particularly Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and emergency housing for domestic violence cases, puts schools in the position of first responder, coping with families facing complex challenges.

“Schools are picking up the pieces from a welfare and social services system that no longer provides a real safety net for families. For those schools, the impacts of poverty on children’s lives are impossible to ignore.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “UCL’s research reflects the stark reality that life for many families is so hard that they have to turn to schools and colleges for basic needs such as food, clothing and other support.

“This is a product not only of the Covid-19 pandemic but of a decade of austerity.

“It is a shameful state of affairs that condemns many young people not only to the misery of living in poverty but also affects their education as they are less likely to be in a fit condition to learn if they are hungry or live in poor quality housing.

“Whatever the Government’s mantra of ‘levelling up’ is supposed to mean, there surely cannot be any greater need than that of tackling the scourge of child poverty.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said: “Our members tell us that children’s worries leave them unable to learn and enjoy school and in need of help in the form of food, clothing and basic supplies.

“They are often embarrassed and ashamed. It’s a situation that sticks in the throat of everyone who has young people’s best interests at heart.

“Poverty and inequality will remain entrenched in the UK unless the Government takes urgent action.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Throughout the pandemic we ensured schools supported the most disadvantaged children by staying open to vulnerable pupils, and delivering free school meals to those learning remotely.

“We have also increased pupil premium funding, expanded the holiday activities and food programme, and extended breakfast clubs, in addition to our investment of more than £3 billion to make up for time lost in the classroom.

“But we know families have struggled, which is why we have provided billions in welfare support for the most vulnerable, made the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade and expanded mental health services to thousands more children and young people, including through our Mental Health Recovery Action Plan.”

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