Children 'stealing food' and too tired to learn, Leeds' headteachers warn

Avivid picture of abject poverty in Leeds' schools has been delivered today.Avivid picture of abject poverty in Leeds' schools has been delivered today.
Avivid picture of abject poverty in Leeds' schools has been delivered today.
A vivid picture of abject poverty in Leeds' schools is delivered today amid stark warnings that a 21st century education cannot be delivered under "Victorian" conditions.

Headteachers, speaking out over the impact of austerity on Leeds' young people, warn parents are increasingly turning to schools for essentials such as food and clothes.

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"Abject poverty affects nearly all my children," one Leeds headteacher has said, fearing that school dinners are often the only hot meal a student will have that day.

"We know that some of our families don't have a choice between eating and heating - they have neither."

For too many children in the city, headteachers warn today, they face a troubling time at home as austerity bites.

And in new findings, to be revealed by the National Association of Headteachers, a bleak picture is painted of the impact of austerity on children's education.

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"Austerity is really hitting our students, and our communities," Yorkshire headteacher Judy Shaw has told the YEP as the association's incoming president, representing 30,000 school leaders nationwide. "They can't concentrate on reading, if their belly is rumbling.

"We may work in Victorian buildings, but this is not Victorian Britain," she adds. "It's the 21st century and our children deserve better."


The NAHT survey, of over 400 headteachers, found that three-quarters reported a rise in the number of parents seeking financial support from schools or help with basics.

Seven headteachers in Leeds have spoken out on the reality of what they are seeing.

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"Our children's shoes are open, clothes threadbare," the headteacher of one Leeds primary school has said. "Our support with food bank vouchers has risen steadily over the last few years from an already high starting point."

The school is working with social care colleagues to provide money for families for things like electricity and heating, they added, while teachers had stepped in to donate prams and baby clothes as they simply couldn't bear to see children going without.

"We feed our children well as we know that for many their lunch will be the only hot meal they have - many of our children will not eat a hot meal through their holidays."


In the NAHT survey, 81 per cent of headteachers said they had seen a rise in the number of children coming into school hungry in the last five years.

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Children had resorted to stealing food from school, one Leeds headteacher revealed.

The impact of austerity at home, they added, left some students with poor concentration and little motivation to learn.

At another primary school in the city, the headteacher said children were tired.

They were hungry. And there was a "huge" rise in their emotional needs.

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This meant more support staff, they said. Extra hours and energy just to get children to a place where they were ready to learn.

"We have worked exceedingly hard to negate as many factors as we can by providing free breakfast to all pupils and subsidising many families who aren't entitled to free school dinners," another headteacher said. "They do not have enough money to feed their children toward the latter part of the week prior to pay day."

Impact on education

Many students no longer take trips to the seaside, or try new activities as their families face money troubles, another headteacher says.

They are put at a "massive" disadvantage when it came to came to understanding the world, they added, and this feeds into their exams and tests.

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"I'm here to educate but I find myself doing so much more than that," the headteacher of one Leeds primary school said.

"My budget is in deficit but who do I cut next, last year I lost eight staff.

"Do I cut my counselor next - but then who will support the families and children in my care who desperately need it?"

Call for action

There is clear evidence of the impact of austerity on pupils of school age, Leeds City Council's executive member for learning has said, calling for urgent action.

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"We receive reports from a wide range of schools across Leeds stating that they are needing to support families in new and diverse ways, which puts pressure on already slashed budgets and forces schools to make increasingly difficult financial decisions," said Coun Jonathan Pryor.

“Schools should not have to choose between pastoral care, providing food and clothing, or maintaining appropriate numbers of teaching staff; and children should certainly not miss out on the opportunity to fulfil their potential as a result of national policies that they have no control over.

“The council is working hard to support schools and families in the face of an increasingly challenging national context, however we are also being forced to endure significant cuts to our core funding from Government. This is a national issue which needs a national response now. I urge the Government to reconsider its current policies to ensure that no child gets left behind.”

Government response

A government spokesman said: “Tackling disadvantage will always be a priority for this government, and we’re taking action to make sure teachers don’t have to step in to tackle the issues highlighted by this survey.

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“The best route out of poverty is work, and under this government we have seen record levels of employment. There are now around 3.5m more people in work compared with 2010 – with over one million fewer workless households – but we recognise that some families need more support.

“That’s why we provide free school meals to more than one million of the country’s most disadvantaged children – and continue to spend over £95bn a year on welfare to ensure every child has the best start in life.”