Of body, soul and mind, the education system’s concern with nourishing each probably runs in ascending order. However, as too many for comfort are finding, when the first is ill-nourished, the rest breaks down. Beyond explores child poverty, hunger, and what can be done in the classroom…
Free School Meals: A Perk to Stigma
Schools have always sought to produce healthy pupils. The correlation between education and food consumption is probably more pronounced in the early years, when all state school pupils receive milk, fruit and free school meals, as well as being introduced to the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet. By KS2, the connection has begun to fade. And by KS3, free school meals are more of a stigma than a perk, despite the good that can be done with pupil premium monies.
Child Poverty and Food Banks
At the start of this academic year, it was reported that more schools than ever are setting up food banks to help feed their pupils’ families. The vast majority of these are primary schools. By nature, primary schools offer more joined-up pastoral care, not least because contact with parents and carers is considerably more frequent when pupils can’t take themselves to and from school. At secondary, the general assumption is that pupils can take care of themselves, and the fractured teaching schedule makes it easier for those in need to slip under the radar.
Which is not to say that secondary school teachers don’t care. Of course we do. But providing much-needed nourishment to a hungry pupil is never as straightforward as it should be. Any safeguarding or welfare concerns should, first and foremost, go through the official channels but, as well as notifying the relevant authorities, here are some pointers for individual teachers who want to lend a helping hand.
Pay attention to pupils’ relationships with food
Sweets are central to most classroom incentivisation schemes and we’re not about to suggest such sugary inducements be swapped for a more wholesome alternative – dangling a carrot in front of them works well metaphorically, considerably less so literally. However, when such inducements are offered, take note of students whose engagement rises exponentially – their added engagement might be less to do with added sugar and more to do with genuine hunger pangs. Conversely, those who regularly refuse edible rewards could be on a health kick bordering on self-harm. Don’t jump to conclusions, but do be alert to patterns and potential cries for help. Log any concerns and, if you have a positive relationship with the pupil in question, find the opportunity to have a quiet word about well-being.
It’s also a sad fact that cries for help can be easily misinterpreted. Stealing from the canteen or from fellow pupils is instinctively sanctioned but beware of writing off as misbehaviour what could be the symptom of a much deeper malaise. In such cases, calls home can be highly informative.
They say it’s the most important meal of the day. Which makes the number of pupils wandering in late clutching an energy drink in lieu of a nutritious bowl of cereal all the more alarming. Most schools run breakfast clubs but they are primarily a means for working parents to deposit their offspring at their school grounds earlier than usual. Despite finding money for cans of sugary synthetic caffeine, the pupils most in need of a good breakfast are highly unlikely to arrive early and pay for it.
With bottom set GCSE classes – where such pupils are stereotypically but by no means exclusively to be found – period one lessons can be a blessing. Laying on breakfast for a whole class is neither cheap nor easy (milky cereals and bacon butties are basic no-noes for a multitude of reasons) but a simple fruit platter (perhaps with the added allure of muffins, allowing iron and fibre to be smuggled in in the guise of cakes) can be amazingly fruitful at improving punctuality and engagement.
If form time comes first in your school day then feeding them all on a daily basis is unfortunately not financially viable on a teacher’s salary. However, as a form tutor you should have a better handle than anyone else on difficult home circumstances so letting underprivileged students know that there is a “share” of your own breakfast to be had if they want to pop their head in a bit earlier than others is a move that would hopefully be welcomed by all. Brunch club during break is also an opportunity to give them a cereal bar to refuel and boost brain power.
Feed mind and soul
After-school clubs and revision sessions can be a slog for the best of us. Sustenance is needed. Since you can’t keep feeding everybody out of your own pocket, ask about wastage from catering providers or local grocery stories and whether there are leftovers or perishable produce that could be put to good use. Alternatively, Home Economics teachers can be superstars at rustling up some cheap grub. Allergies may be a concern but secondary school pupils should be wary enough to know what they can and can’t let pass their lips.
With fuel station sorted, you’re ready to feed both body and mind, although with after-school sessions certain students will always need frogmarching through the door no matter how delectable the spread before them. It’s also the case that teenagers generally resent being singled out in any way so it’s important to tread carefully around disadvantaged children and not to make them feel like charity cases. Which is where charity can come in handy… organising bake sales for whatever good causes your pupils want to support not only nourishes their souls, it provides a tacit opportunity to serve the malnourished, who are more likely to accept a little food parcel if they have had a hand in its preparation.
With luck, the only starving child you’ve encountered in a classroom is Oliver Twist, but what could be pejoratively described as Dickensian living conditions are sadly not confined to the past. We’re not trained social workers but teachers are increasingly on the front line when it comes to spotting social deprivation. Neither are we miracle workers but if there’s just one pupil for whom you manage to feed mind, body and soul then miracle worker should be your new job title.
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