Teachers and GPs ‘staggering’ under extra demands caused by poverty in Great Britain

Updated
<span>The study found a third of schools had set up food banks to provide emergency supplies to hungry families.</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy</span>
The study found a third of schools had set up food banks to provide emergency supplies to hungry families.Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

Britain’s schools and primary health services are “staggering” under the pressure of demand caused by an epidemic of extreme poverty, as desperate families unable to afford food, clothing or heating increasingly turn to them for crisis help.

Teachers and GPs in England, Scotland and Wales are informally acting as emergency food providers, welfare advisers, housing officers and social workers alongside their day jobs, as they devote more and more time and resources to support struggling parents and children, new research has found.

Staff routinely helped parents solve housing, visa and benefits problems, and provided them with food, clothes, and shower and washing machine facilities. They have also handed out cash for energy meters, toys and books, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) study revealed.

“You feed them [pupils], you clothe them, you tell them [parents] where to go if they’re homeless. It’s literally everything. It’s not even about teaching or learning, It’s about keeping them fed, keeping a roof over their head,” a deputy head from a Bristol school told researchers.

Poverty campaigners have warned that the two main parties’ election manifesto promises to improve the NHS and schools would ring hollow unless they were prepared to also urgently tackle rising poverty if elected.

Katie Schmuecker, the JRF’s principal policy adviser, said: “No plan for our schools or NHS should be taken seriously if it doesn’t include tackling hardship. Primary schools and GP services are staggering under the weight of hardship – it shouldn’t fall to them to ensure families are not going hungry.”

The latest official figures show 4.3 million UK children – about one in three – were in relative poverty in 2022-23. More than 1 million youngsters experienced destitution – extreme material hardship – while charity food banks gave out record numbers of emergency food parcels last year.

The JRF study, based on focus groups, interviews and surveys, found:

  • Primary school staff estimated 48% of their pupils, and primary care staff 57% of their patients, had experienced hardship at some point since the start of the school year or over the past 12 months.

  • A third of schools, and nearly half of GP surgeries, had set up food banks to provide emergency food supplies to hungry pupils and families. Staff in schools in deprived areas estimated 44% of pupils had come to school hungry over the past year.

  • Nearly a quarter of NHS primary care staff and 40% of teachers said they had dipped into their own pockets to help pupils and patients. In one case, a nurse gave new underpants, still in their packet and intended for her husband, to a desperate patient.

GPs said penniless patients were missing treatment because they couldn’t afford to travel for hospital visits or afford prescription charges, while scarce health centre appointment slots were being taken up by staff signing benefit forms for patients, writing letters to stop evictions, or writing referrals to food banks.

Schools said they were devoting growing resources to “firefighting” behavioural issues stemming from pupil and parent hunger, poverty, poor housing and mental ill health. This meant less time and energy spent on core teaching, triggering a negative ripple effect on all the children in the class.

GPs and schools, particularly in deprived areas, were now typically regarded by struggling families as a “first-line service” that would deal with their problems, the JRF said, in part because other forms of community-based advice and support such as Sure Start had been cut over the past 14 years.

The Conservative manifesto did not mention the two-child limit on benefits, or child poverty, instead highlighting plans to cut £12bn from benefits spending, a measure charities said was likely to increase hardship and destitution.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary at the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “School leaders are supporting increasing numbers of children who are coming to school hungry, including more from working households. They and their staff are not just supporting the education of their pupils, but effectively acting as social workers and counsellors in many instances.”

Prof Kamila Hawthorne, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said:General practice, and other public services, can’t be expected to pick up the pieces – we’re already facing unprecedented pressures as demand for our appointments increases in volume and complexity.”

“There’s a daily challenge, and it is not always about education,” says Gareth Elswood, of St John Chrysostom Federation, which runs two primary schools. “It’s not just about Sats results. A big part of our job is about supporting families.”

The primary schools Elswood oversees are in an economically deprived, ethnically diverse part of Manchester. Families tend to use them as the “first service”, to sort out a range of problems from housing to visa renewal.

The cost of living crisis means the schools now give out twice as many free school uniforms as they did. The breakfast club is booming and they issue lots of food bank referrals. “The parents just don’t have the money to spend,” he says.

The schools deploy teaching assistants and support staff in a family support role. It’s vital, Elswood says, “but if they are doing that they are not taking the extra maths group, and that will have an effect on standards over time”.

Funding the extra duties put a strain on the schools’ core budget, but Elswood does not resent this: “People ask me: ‘Why is the school concerned with pupils’ housing?’ The answer is: ‘We can’t educate them unless they are properly housed,’” he says.

In many ways the schools are the perfect place to provide that wider support, says Elswood: it is at the heart of the community, trusted by parents, and open 12 hours a day. “We’d like employ a family support worker, but we can’t do that under current funding,” he says.

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