I went to school in an area of very high deprivation that I later returned to as a member of staff(twice!). Growing up I didn’t particularly notice the disadvantage around me – I knew it was a rough area and for a lot of people the deprivation was evident but I was young and didn’t really see it – it was just the norm.
It wasn’t until I returned as a member of staff that the deprivation and poverty in the community hit me. It didn’t take long for it to really hit home just how hard some of our student’s lives were. I started volunteering as a teaching assistant at 17 and then was employed a couple of months later. Working as a TA gives you the privilege to really get to know a core contingent of students at secondary, as you very often follow them around, see the same classes etc. which is less possible as a teacher.
The first student I really made a connection with in my career was a Year 7 boy with ADHD for whom the effects of not eating would become very apparent, very quickly as it would impact on his medication and his behaviour would spiral. I’d bring cereal bars into school to give him whenever he asked for one, or if I asked and he hadn’t eaten breakfast. Eventually we moved towards bowls of cereal as he’d come into school earlier and sit with me and I preferred him getting a proper breakfast. I’d often find myself buying him a drink or something to eat because it just felt like the right thing to do. How could you let a child go hungry when there’s something you can do about it?
One of my favourite things to do is pay for a student’s lunch when we are queueing (usually when I jump in front of them, I will add, in an attempt to get back some kharma!) or let a student have my duty meal if I’m not using it. What should be a tiny part of a child’s day suddenly becomes a pivotal point. Now they can save money for later and have food they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Watching a child’s face light up because they are being fed is both sobering and heartbreaking.
I always look at school lunch menus with interest and challenge prices that seem too high – how often have you looked at your menus? I’ve seen plenty where the FSM money will cover a slice of pizza, a biscuit and a drink in what might be a child’s only opportunity for a decent meal in a day. How often do you see students come into school desperately hungry, spend their money at break and then have nothing for lunch? How often do you lament the behaviour of an afternoon class when X number of them haven’t eaten since breaktime? How many of us always have a stash of food on hand in a classroom or an office for when we can see a child is hungry? How regularly do we ask the canteen to just ‘stick it onto X budget’ when a student can’t afford a meal? I’ll often be stood in the canteen and see students queue for lunch, ask the price of something and then walk away – far too many of them having to try and do the maths of where the next meal is coming from.
There is also lots of argument about schools not being the right place for an intervention like this, that we aren’t another arm of social care, and I agree. There is equally lots of rhetoric about parents who can afford mobile phones, internet, alcohol etc. but can’t afford to feed their kids. Working in pastoral care you see the worst of this – cupboards stocked on the day of a visit from social services, money provided when you’ve seen a student hasn’t eaten for a period of time. Could social systems be better? Of course – but these are very often the outliers.
The role of the school has become so broad in recent years that we take responsibility for so much more than ever before. In an ideal world we’d be able to focus solely on education but unfortunately that will never be the case. So the question becomes how long are we happy for children to go hungry? They don’t choose to and there’s nothing they can do to change it. We can though. If it’s a choice between doing more and children going hungry – sign me up for the former. This isn’t a new problem – it’s just finally receiving the press it deserves. If the government want to be able to peddle a word-class education system then they need to start by ensuring our children don’t need to worry about food.