The extent to which families rely on schools to fill basic needs like access to food and support services has been laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report has warned.
The research, by UCL, is based on in-depth interviews from 50 parents and staff at seven schools in England.
The report warned some communities had been hit “much harder” than others, particularly those where children were already living in poverty.
Families turned to schools as “important sources of support”. Schools dealt with children in need of food and clothing, families in “inadequate” housing, those with limited digital connectivity, pupils facing mental health crises and even some facing domestic violence.
Addressing food insecurity was the “most immediate priority” for all schools in the study. They went to “considerable lengths” to ensure pupils received at least a meal a day.
One headteacher said they had “noticed over time” that those using a food pantry service weren’t just those eligible for free school meals.
“It was this tier just above, the people who’d been furloughed, the people who had always had a job.”
Reliance on schools reveals ‘fundamental weaknesses’ in welfare
The reliance on schools also revealed “fundamental weaknesses in our current welfare system that urgently need repair”, the report warned, adding that pupil premium funding “does not adequately reflect the work schools do to support children living in poverty or struggling with difficult issues at home”.
Headteachers also find themselves shouldering “significant responsibilities within networks of support that have themselves fragmented”. This “diminishes system resilience”.
The report concluded that schools’ voices should be heard when it comes to recovery, and that policy funding for education needs to focus on “building system resilience over the longer term”.
“Recovery from Covid is a long-term process not a short-term sprint. The current settlement on offer is not enough to fix the many issues the school system in England faces and which COVID has so sharply revealed.”
Co-author Professor Alice Bradbury said the research “shows that the lack of services that support children, particularly child and adolescent mental health services and emergency housing for domestic violence cases, puts schools in the position of first responder, coping with families facing complex challenges.
“Schools are picking up the pieces from a welfare and social services system that no longer provides a real safety net for families. For those schools, the impacts of poverty on children’s lives are impossible to ignore.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said schools had “rightly” been at the centre of efforts to improve equality of opportunity.
“But it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.”
He said cuts to local authority budgets had “greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes”.
“Similarly, schools are less able to access local authority support for pupils and families that need it. Poverty and inequality will remain entrenched in the UK unless the government takes urgent action.”