POLITICS
17/12/2018 00:01 GMT | Updated 17/12/2018 09:18 GMT

'We Are Buying Them Coats On A Scale Never Seen Before': Teachers Share 'Dickensian' Instances Of Child Poverty

Holiday hunger and lack of winter clothes more apparent than three years ago.

Steven Robinson Pictures via Getty Images

Teachers have voiced fears that the “Dickensian” child poverty they witness in their classrooms has got worse. 

Almost two thirds of teachers (63%) told a National Education Union survey they see more families unable to afford winter clothes than in 2015 and around half (46%) report holiday hunger as a growing problem.

The survey of 1,026 teachers in England has underlined “the distressing new reality” for some children amid huge concern about the rollout of the government’s flagship benefit reform, Universal Credit.  

According to the National Education Union poll:  

  • 46% of teachers believe holiday hunger is worse in comparison to 2015

  • 63% see more families unable to afford adequate winter clothes or shoes in comparison to 2015

  • 46% witness families struggling with housing, including poor quality, insecure, overcrowded or temporary accommodation 

  • 53% believe more children and young people will go hungry over Christmas than in 2015

  • 40% said schools provide extra items for young people because families could not afford to. 

As part of the survey, educators also painted a devastating picture of life for some British children in 2018, with a series of anonymous quotes: 

Mute students, going cold, making excuses, feeling ashamed.Teacher 1
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 dayTeacher 2
I found out last week that a third of my class sleep in their uniforms as they don’t have pyjamas.Teacher 3
We are buying them coats on a scale never seen before.Teacher 4
One student wore his trousers backwards as he didn’t want anyone to know he had holes in the knees.Teacher 5

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, blamed high rents, in-work poverty and welfare reforms for the report’s findings. 

Living in poverty also has a stark impact on children’s education, teachers said. 

Teachers observed a wide range of what they saw as consequences to the poverty they witnessed, including absence (83%), bad behaviour (85%), poor concentration (81%), health (59%) and lateness (79%).

Not enough money for ‘basics’ such as food and shoes

Bousted said: “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 one in five workers.” 

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The survey has been published in the wake of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited the UK. 

Philip Alston concluded that the UK government had inflicted “great misery” on its citizens since David Cameron’s heralded the age of austerity. The UN envoy also accused the government of being “in denial” about the scale of poverty in the UK. 

“The Government must stop hiding from the facts,” Bousted said. “Children can’t escape the poverty trap without an urgent change to national policies.”

Theresa May used her speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham to signal that the age of austerity was coming to “an end”. 

Chancellor Philip Hammond also used his budget in November to plough £1bn extra into Universal Credit, which sees six benefits rolled into one, recognising there were significant problems with its implementation. 

Labour said the NEU survey was “shocking” and said ministers must also give the education budget a cash injection. 

‘Teachers shouldn’t have to step in’

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, said: “Growing up in such hardship has a major influence on education, health and welfare, and quite simply it is harder to learn if you are hungry or homeless.

“Schools are being left to fend for themselves and deal with the consequences, despite years of swingeing cuts to their own budgets under the Tories.”

A government spokesman said fewer children are living in absolute poverty compared with 2010. 

He said: “Teachers shouldn’t have to step in to tackle the issues highlighted by this survey, and we’re already taking action to make sure that they don’t have to. Since 2010 there are 300,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty, employment is at a record high and we’re committed to ensuring that every child gets the very best chances in life.

“We continue to spend £90 billion a year on welfare to support those who need it most, have introduced the National Living Wage and helped workers keep more of the money they earn by cutting taxes for 31 million people by an average of £1,000.

“On top of this, we’ve introduced funding to support thousands of disadvantaged families in the school holidays to ensure they get the extra help they need.”