Children not eligible for free school meals are coming to school with mouldy bread, empty wraps and in some cases nothing at all, according to teachers who told the Guardian they had never seen such desperation in the communities they serve.
The harrowing accounts of widespread hunger in classrooms come as analysis by the Liberal Democrats found more than 100,000 children in England may be missing out on free school meals (FSM) because the income ceiling for eligibility has been frozen for four years, at a time when costs have soared.
“The government is snatching school lunches away from children by stealth,” said Munira Wilson, the education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, who argued that had the £7,400 limit on household earnings been increased in line with inflation, it would now be set at £8,575, rendering up to 110,000 more children eligible.
School leaders say they are shocked by the pitiful packed lunches they are seeing in classrooms as desperate parents struggle to feed their children. One pupil brought in a cupful of left-over plain rice, and another brought nothing but a small tub of dry breakfast cereal.
Others come to school with a single chocolate bar, after parents give them a pound to buy something for lunch, while many from low-income families arrive in class tired and listless because their stomachs are empty.
“I’ve been in education now since 2006 and I’ve never known anything like it,” said Sarah Livesey, headteacher at Oasis Academy Leesbrook in Oldham, greater Manchester. “We are in the worst situation we have ever been. Even with Covid, I think this is our most challenging time.”
Livesey’s school is in an area which has among the highest levels of deprivation in the country. Some families are new arrivals seeking asylum for whom language and internet access are obstacles to applying for free school meals. Others are on universal credit and are struggling to make ends meet, but still do not meet the criteria for FSM.
“Some of our families will sacrifice their own meals in order to ensure their children can eat,” said Livesey. “Some are struggling to provide breakfast, so we provide breakfast for all of our children.”
Children arrive early for the free, unlimited breakfast with the hungriest pupils devouring three bowls of cereal and two bagels. “So if they’re not entitled to free school meals, and their packed lunch is not as substantive as we would like it to be, at least they’ve had a decent breakfast,” said Livesey.
Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford are among a growing list of celebrities campaigning for wider access to free school meals, the most recent being former One Direction singer Zayn Malik. He relied on free school lunches as a child growing up in Bradford and is now an ambassador for the Food Foundation, backing its Feed the Future campaign that would extend free lunches to the 800,000 children from families on benefits who don’t currently qualify.
In England, children from reception to primary year two receive universal free school meals. The Scottish and Welsh governments have gone further and are committed to rolling it out to all primary school pupils.
According to the Liberal Democrats, new figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions show that 1.07 million children aged 5-16 in England live in households below the current income ceiling of £7,400 after tax and benefits, but had it increased in line with inflation 1.18 million children would be under the threshold.
“Every year that ministers keep this callous policy, thousands of children in hard-working families, struggling to make ends meet, lose out,” said Wilson. “Freezing the threshold is morally, economically and politically bankrupt, trapping families in poverty as the cost-of-living crisis bites.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.
School leaders say parents are not only struggling to feed their children; keeping school uniform clean is also a challenge, with some pupils arriving in damp blazers because it is too cold in their homes to dry clothes after washing them. Teachers discreetly take wet clothes away and dry them during the school day.
At OA Leesbrook, there are industrial-size washing machines available for parents who need them, regular coffee mornings to provide warmth, a cup of tea and a biscuit, as well as English language and cooking classes to try to help parents support their families.
Elsewhere, teachers said some parents were struggling to raise their children in substandard housing. At one Oldham primary school, a mother who had reported a mouse infestation was sent to accident and emergency by school staff after her baby was bitten on the ear and hand while the family slept. Meanwhile, head lice is rampant because parents cannot afford to buy treatments from the chemist.
Greg Oates, the head teacher at Beever primary school in Oldham since 2001, said: “The vast majority of our children are eligible for free school meals and a lot of the children who are not on FSM are very, very close to the threshold.
“We are getting children coming in to school maybe not having breakfast. Sometimes the packed lunches are a bit sparse – there’s not much in it.
“We’ve seen a number of times a child opens their packed lunch and the bread’s mouldy. The parents are trying to make a loaf last as long as possible. We’ve spotted it and taken it away and given them a school dinner. I would love them all to be able to access the school dinners and I’d like the school dinners to be funded a lot better.”
With costs rising, the cost of a school lunch has gone up from £2.50 a day to £2.70. In the past parents have got into debt over lunches, so the school is now more proactive, trying to ensure parents don’t get into arrears. “In the past we’ve had to write things off. We’ve just had to carry the cost of that as a school.”
Oates remembers a time when there was more funding available, when children’s centres and early intervention were making a difference to vulnerable people in the community where he works, with children being seen by schools nurses and referrals to specialists where required.
Things have changed. “What we are seeing is the eradication of public services,” said Oates. “As a school we’ve become the focal point for everything. We are going well above what should be the remit for a school. For me it’s symptomatic of how society is falling apart.”
Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, accused the government of “abandoning families,” and pledged that a Labour administration would fund free school breakfasts for primary school pupils. “The ongoing scandal of so many children coming to school hungry is the grim real-world impact of the Conservatives crashing the economy,” Morgan said.
Amanda Chadderton, leader of Oldham council, said: “Food poverty is at crisis levels for many people in Oldham. For some children, free school meals are the only hot meal they get in a day, and the very thought of school holidays have parents in panic. “When I became leader of Oldham council I made children and young people one of my top priorities, along with tackling the cost of living crisis. “But whatever we do, it’s unlikely to be enough. So on behalf of Oldham’s residents, I urge the incoming government to do more to help our children and parents who are grappling with food poverty and prevent more families falling on to the breadline.”