Jayne Dowle: Don’t blame the teachers as pupils go hungry in classrooms

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THIS might make you choke on your breakfast. Almost half of teachers in our region have brought in food for pupils who have had nothing to eat in the morning.

If you’re reading this as you attempt to force a bowl of cereal down your offspring, it might give you some perspective. We’re hardly talking about the Readybrek glow.

And then we wonder why schools in Yorkshire and the Humber regularly fail to reach the mark. That breakfast survey, carried out by Kelloggs, finds we are the worst region in the country when it comes to pupil well-being. More than 20 per cent of teachers who were asked said that problems with youngsters coming to school hungry and thirsty have got worse since last year. Cuts to benefits and straitened economic circumstances are beginning to bite. When household budgets are stretched to the maximum, a hearty breakfast is going to be way down the list of priorities.

This has inevitable knock-on consequences for rest of the school day. Hungry and exhausted pupils are hardly going to settle down happily to learning. They will be argumentative, unsettled and disruptive. I am sure that some clever academic is doing some in-depth research on the link between hunger and bad behaviour in the classroom.

Frankly though, you only have to walk into any number of schools in our region to see it for yourself. And it’s not just hunger. It’s poverty at home which is being carried into the classroom. A recent regional report for Ofsted found that students from deprived backgrounds in Yorkshire do worse at school than their better-off classmates from early years to the age of 19. The report warns that “huge gaps of 30 per cent or more” in the levels of pupils from poorer homes getting five good GCSEs, compared to wealthier children.

Next time there is a crisis at your child’s school, think about the bigger picture before you rush to blame the teachers. There will be children sitting next to your son or daughter who not only don’t have enough to eat, they probably don’t have proper warm clothes to wear, shoes without holes, or a decent bed to sleep in – if they have a bed at all.

They will be more likely to succumb to colds and infections, and far less likely to have a quiet place and internet access to do their homework. Teachers will be stretched to the limit trying to accommodate them, not only by bringing in food, but struggling to help those who are finding learning difficult. Such as those who have English as a second language and hear nothing but their mother tongue at home.

A friend who works as a teaching assistant in a local primary school tells the heart-breaking tale of a little Polish boy who just sits and cries all day. His problem? He can’t understand a word being spoken around him. Is it any wonder that with a start like this, so many youngsters end up impossible-to-teach?

This disruption factor has been highly-evident in my son’s own school. He attends an academy, and it has been the making of him. Until now, he has struggled to learn and to settle down in class (and this has nothing to do with his lack of breakfast). However, although Jack continues to make progress, his school has been going downhill. A damning Ofsted report. The resignation of the headteacher. A series of “super-heads” drafted in to turn things around. You know the story. It’s a familiar tale in education.

And although we’ve had all the letters home with details of staff restructures and so on, ask Jack and his friends what the problems are and they all say one thing – disruptive pupils in class make it difficult for others to learn. The tales they tell of what happens in science, for example, would make your hair stand on end. As a parent, it is tempting to get angry and demand that the teachers instil discipline.

However, it’s not as easy as that. Behind every disruptive child is a story. Why are they disruptive? What is causing their lack of concentration and determination to upset the environment? Why do they have no aspiration or ambition? What do they see around them at home?

All of this certainly brings some perspective to the breakfast table. According to Ofsted, our region has more schools which are failing to deliver a decent education than anywhere else in England. A third of our pupils go to secondary schools which are less than good. This has an inevitable consequence. We don’t attract enough good teachers. Therefore, our schools end up spiralling into a cycle of poor achievement and falling standards.

This state of affairs should concern parents. It should concern teachers. It should concern those charged with improving standards in Yorkshire schools. It should certainly concern politicians, at both local and national level. Indeed, it should concern all of us who want our educational establishments to be the envy of the country, not an embarrassment to us all.