Holiday hunger is impacting the development of school children - Jonathan Glazzard

Schools are facing significant challenges during the post-pandemic era. In my various roles as a researcher in the School of Education at the University of Hull and trustee of two very large multi-academy trusts, I am acutely aware that the schools in the Yorkshire, Humber and North East regions are significantly under-resourced.

School leaders are grappling with reduced school budgets, at the same time as trying to support increasing numbers of children with poor mental health. The reasons for this are varied across individuals, but there is evidence that the pandemic has had an adverse effect on children’s mental health.

In 2023 Ofsted also highlighted concerns about declining levels of pupil attendance, the increased use of part-time timetables for pupils who are too anxious to attend school, the lack of specialist provision for pupils with special educational needs and the shortage of mental health services to support schools and families.

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Although social mobility was declining and social inequalities were widening before the pandemic, many children in the post-pandemic era do not have access to healthy food, warmth, and basic healthcare. Life satisfaction scores of 15-year-olds fell between 2015-22. Children from under-resourced backgrounds are less likely to achieve five good GCSEs compared to those from the top fifth of incomes and in primary schools, children on free school meals are doing less well in reading and mathematics than peers from more affluent backgrounds.

Students eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch in the canteen. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA WireStudents eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch in the canteen. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Students eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch in the canteen. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Across the UK, just under a quarter of 15-year-olds do not reach the required standards in maths, reading and science and children from the richest households are more likely to benefit from private tutoring. According to Ofsted pupil behaviour has worsened in many schools since the pandemic and the social contract which binds parents and schools together has been damaged.

Food poverty and insecurity are also major problems that schools are dealing with. Children cannot learn effectively if they are hungry. Millions of children in the UK return to school after the holidays malnourished. Children who receive free school meals are particularly vulnerable during the winter months when families face increased heating costs. They return to school malnourished after the school holidays and this impacts on their learning as well as their physical health. The cost-of-living crisis has plunged many families into poverty. Availability of support for most vulnerable families during the school holidays is a postcode lottery.

I know of several schools that are using under-resourced budgets to provide free food for children, through schemes such as free breakfast clubs. Local supermarkets have also developed a range of initiatives to support families in poverty, including free or reduced-cost meal vouchers for children during school holidays. The government has provided financial support to local councils through the Housing Support Fund, but, worryingly, this is due to end in September. Under-resourced school budgets are also impacting adversely on staffing, and redundancies to balance school budgets are now a common outcome, despite children needing significant support.

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There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems. Shortening the length of the long summer holiday is a possible solution. Children from the poorest families experience the greatest learning loss during the summer holiday and are also likely to experience holiday hunger. Rebalancing the school calendar may also help parents who are unable to work during the summer break due to the unaffordable cost of childcare.

To address the problem with school absence, the Department for Education has issued a media campaign to encourage parents to send their children to school. Although well-intentioned, sending children to school when they are too ill or anxious to attend is probably not a good idea. My discussions with school leaders have highlighted that schools are doing everything that they can be reasonably expected to do to encourage children to attend school. There are good reasons for encouraging attendance. Not attending school can lead to lost learning and social isolation. However, England’s post-pandemic response has largely been to focus on catching up with lost learning rather than supporting pupils’ wellbeing.

Greater attention to wellbeing and social and emotional learning in the curriculum is a potential game changer and this is supported by the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit which shows that a social and emotional curriculum intervention can have a positive impact on children’s learning. Prioritising wellbeing and mental health in the curriculum can also improve children’s readiness to learn.

Schools cannot do this alone. School leaders need the support of parents and adequate external professional services to address declining wellbeing, mental health and learning gaps. Greater financial investment in mental health services through access to mental health professionals in every school, further investment in child and adolescent mental health services and mental health ‘drop-in’ hubs in every community for young people to access, are examples of what might be achieved with adequate government investment.

Professor Jonathan Glazzard is Rosalind Hollis Professor of Education for Social Justice at the University of Hull.

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