Children in Scottish schools are turning up to class “visibly unwell” and pale from hunger, a shocking new poverty report has found.
The Scottish Parliament’s education and skills committee said it was “appalled” at the findings, which showed pupils were so hungry they had been forced to steal food and equipment from their classmates.
Schools have been urged to “poverty proof” their uniforms and ban items of clothing deemed to be unnecessary or excessively expensive, amid reports of “unexplained absences” due to families being unable to sustain uniforms being worn every day.
MPs hailed the work some councils are doing to tackle the problems, highlighting Glasgow’s provision of free meals for all pupils up to P4, and North Lanarkshire’s efforts to tackle “holiday hunger”.
But they also voiced concern about the cost of some items of uniform and warned that moving to online payments for school dinners or trips could disadvantage families without access to computers.
Committee convener James Dornan was clear that MSPs had been told that “aspects of UK social security policy are the single biggest reason for the increase in child poverty”.
He added: “We heard time and again that teachers are increasingly seeing children who are affected by poverty, including children coming to school hungry.
“That this is an increasing problem in Scotland is utterly appalling, but we know that this is something that schools cannot tackle alone.”
With Nicola Sturgeon having made closing the attainment gap between rich and poorer youngsters her top priority, Mr Dornan said action was needed to “ensure that our schools do not have costs which impact on young people’s time at school, including their opportunity to learn”.
He added: “This is not always about big changes, but rather a recognition that even the smallest policy can sometimes have a serious impact on families experiencing poverty.”
During the inquiry, MSPs heard how some families cannot afford the resources to help youngsters do their homework, whether that be craft materials such as glue and glitter in primary school, or access to IT and the internet for older pupils.
The committee was also told “some families cannot afford basic amenities such as hot water for showers or beds, which can impact on young people’s attendance at school and readiness to learn when they are there”.
The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, told MSPs pupils were sometimes not able to participate in trips and were turning up at school without the necessary PE kit.
“Some kids come into school and tell teachers that they are hungry,” the union said.
“Some steal food or items of equipment from one another at times, and some appear visibly unwell – pale and complaining of headaches – or have unexplained absences from school.”
Mr Dornan said: “Clearly the Scottish Government, education authorities and schools are working hard to address these issues, but there is still more to do.”