A new report shows how badly Tory austerity is making schoolchildren suffer this winter

School children in snow
Nathan Griffiths

A new report from the National Education Union (NEU) has revealed the extent of the suffering that poverty-stricken schoolchildren face this winter. The findings reveal just how badly austerity is harming the poorest and most vulnerable children in our society.

The report

The NEU findings mirror evidence of growing levels of child poverty in the UK. Over 4.5 million children are in poverty, with over 400,000 more children living in poverty since 2012/13. The suffering is even more intense for schoolchildren across the winter period, as the new report shows.

The NEU investigation polled over 1,000 of its members in order to uncover the realities facing schoolchildren this winter. The results of the investigation showed:

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  • 46% of teachers confirmed that child hunger during school holidays is worse than it was three years ago.
  • 63% of respondents stated a larger number of families are “unable to afford adequate winter clothes or shoes” compared to three years ago.
  • 53% of respondents believe that “children and young people will go hungry over Christmas”.

The teachers also detailed harrowing accounts of their pupils suffering. “We are buying them coats on a scale never seen before,” teachers explained. One said:

Kids come in without winter coats even in the coldest weather, or with shoes held together by tape.

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Another explained that students turned up to school with “holes in shoes, no outside coat, trousers far too short, holes in clothes, still wearing sandals/unsuitable footwear in November”.

Not just a winter issue

The teachers also expressed wider concerns about poverty all year round, with the report stating that:

  • 46% of teachers believe that there are more issues with housing than there were three years ago. They cited issues such as “poor quality, insecure, overcrowded or temporary accommodation”.
  • 40% of respondents confirmed that schools have to “provide extra items for children and young people and their families” due to increasing levels of poverty.

“I found out last week that a third of my class sleep in their uniforms as they don’t have pyjamas,” one teacher said. Another stated:

We give free school dinners to children who don’t qualify for FSM (free school meals) because their parents work but have contacted us to say they have no money that day.

A further account explained how a student “wore his trousers backwards as he didn’t want anyone to know he had holes in the knees”.

The respondents also voiced concerns about poverty’s effect on pupils education. 83% of respondents observed absence from school and 79% observed lateness to school. 85% saw behavioural issues, while 81% noticed effects on pupils’ concentration. 59% saw effects on pupils’ health.

Unnecessary suffering

Dr Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the NEU, condemned the findings, stating:

This is a Dickensian picture of the poverty that far too many children and their families are having to endure. The Government is out of touch with the distressing new reality of children’s daily lives: with what it means to live without enough money for basics, such as food, shoes and adequate clothing…The Government has failed to recognise the human cost of its cuts to schools and other children’s services and to the social security system, and its failure to address the in-work poverty faced by 1 in 5 workers.

Dr Bousted finished her statement by saying:

The UN Envoy Philip Alston concluded in his recent report that the Government is in a state of denial about the levels of poverty in the UK. The Government must stop hiding from the facts. Children can’t escape the poverty trap without an urgent change to national policies.

Bousted is absolutely right. Over 14 million people are in poverty, with 4.5 million of them being children. Average wages have plummeted, the cost of living has increased, and foodbank use is at record levels.

The recent UN report said that “poverty is a political choice” in the UK. This is true. Successive Conservative-led governments have chosen to inflict “great misery” on people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. And our underpaid teachers and underfunded schools are left to provide for poverty-stricken children, sometimes even out of their own pockets.

These children’s suffering will only end when radical changes are made; changes it’s clearly unlikely the Conservatives will make. For many children this winter, though, such changes will come too late.

Featured image via JoshHolloway/Wikimedia

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