Child poverty its worst in decades says Hatfield Catholic primary head teacher

A head teacher has said child poverty levels have “increased significantly”.

Mairead Waugh, from St Philip Howard Catholic Primary School in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, described the issue as “widespread”.

“The numbers are just increasing week on week currently,” she said.

Her assessment came as a national survey found that 75% of respondent school workers were sourcing food bank vouchers and dealing with student dinner money debt.

Ms Waugh said at her school, which offered a food bank and second-hand uniform sales, the struggles were “hitting so many more families that in the past wouldn’t have been necessarily affected”.

The teacher of 25 years’ experience added: “It’s not just those that are on free school meals, for example. Because that threshold is so low, it’s the next group of families that are just above it that are also affected.”

The survey, co-ordinated by the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, found the majority of those who took part reported an increase in child poverty during the past two academic years.

The coalition said its survey of 1,023 people was a “first-of-its-kind” study into the experiences of those working in or with schools in England, from headteachers to catering teams.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said the report’s findings showed that staff wanted “to focus on children’s development but get side-tracked by dinner money debt”, including having to check payments, contact parents and signpost to advice services.

he coalition’s survey followed findings this month in a National Foundation for Educational Research report that nearly nine in 10 schools were providing uniforms and clothing to some pupils.

Additionally, free school meals were rolled out to all primary-aged pupils in state-funded schools in London for the 2023-24 academic year, in a move announced by Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Elsewhere in England, only some children qualify for free school meals, including those whose parents are on Universal Credit with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

A government spokesperson said eligibility for free school meals had been extended “several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century”, including the introduction of new eligibility criteria for families receiving Universal Credit.

The spokesperson also highlighted core schools’ funding which they said was “helping schools to manage costs and best support pupils”, and added the government had provided “record financial support worth an average £3,300 per household” amid the higher cost of living.