School leaders from deprived areas in the UK have stated that extreme child poverty is increasing, and they are being forced to offer basic services such as washing school uniforms for students from low-income households due to budget cuts in councils and social services. In addition to this, school leaders mentioned that they are purchasing shoes, coats, paying for budget advice and counseling services for parents, and in some cases, offering emergency loans in cash to families. The findings of a survey conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union reveals that 60% of the 900 teachers surveyed believes that child poverty in schools has worsened since 2015, with one in three saying it has significantly worsened. According to the headteacher of an inner-city primary school in Cardiff, while poverty on paper seems to be getting better, “poverty is just becoming more and more extreme. Benefit entitlement rules are shutting more and more families out of the system.” Several school leaders have noticed an obvious difference in health and stature between children from their schools in deprived areas and those from better-off areas. Headteachers note that they are expected to be “social workers, to be carers, doctors” while simultaneously doing “all the other things that government wants us to do,” and have even created food banks to give out food parcels. According to an NEU official responsible for child poverty, the reality is that over 4.1 million children in the UK are living in poverty, and schools are now serving as a safety net, particularly for children in poverty.
According to a recent survey, 55% of teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the provision of free school meals, stating that it does not adequately cater to the requirements of students from low-income backgrounds.
With regards to this issue, Dignam has highlighted the new income threshold for universal credit that is expected to come into effect in 2022. This implementation can lead to children who are currently eligible for free school meals being excluded from the program, which will ultimately cause a much graver crisis than the current situation. Therefore, there is a pressing need for policymakers to introduce feasible solutions to deal with this problem.
The National Education Union (NEU) recommends that all children whose families are receiving universal credit should be entitled to free school meals.
Although the responsibility for child poverty falls outside the purview of the Department for Education (DfE), it has permitted the use of pupil premium funding for the purpose of providing relief to families living in poverty.
A spokesperson for the DfE reassures that their efforts are directed towards aiding underprivileged students by making available free school meals, a £2.5bn funding allocation through the pupil premium to assist with their education, and a £26m investment in starting and enhancing breakfast clubs for at least 1,700 schools.
In the latest development, the education minister, Nadhim Zahawi, has promised funding for research into solutions aimed at aiding disadvantaged families during the school holidays. The objective is to tackle the problem of "holiday hunger".