Teachers' heartbreak as pupil poverty overshadows Christmas

For children living in poverty, school provides much more than just an education – it’s a lifeline.

Thousands of pupils across England are dreading the approaching Christmas holiday as the structure, safety and regular meals they have come to depend on are replaced with hunger, fear and instability.

A recent report from Shelter revealed 126,000 children in England are currently without a home or living in temporary accommodation – around 3,000 more than last year.

A further 4,000 children are expected to become homeless between now and Christmas Day.

Schools can often be left powerless during the interim, but Schools Week caught up with the school staff determined to make a difference.

Matthew Tate, headteacher of Hartsdown Academy in Margate, is attempting to raise £5,000 to provide Christmas hampers for families on the breadline in Thanet.

The school previously staged an annual Christmas dinner for pupils in need over the break but due to vital building work cannot do so this year.

He is hoping to create 100 hampers which will include food, toiletries and children’s toys – 50 of which will be going to children in his own school, while others will be distributed to local primary schools.

The school already provides clothes, food and toiletries to around 100 pupils each month.

“It’s heartbreaking to see how many children look miserable as they head out the school gates for the Christmas holidays,” said Tate.

“We know a lot of our families are in crisis and that’s the same with a lot of schools in the area.”

Tate said around 50 per cent of his 700 pupils receive free school meals and the school regularly washes pupils’ clothes, opens early to provide free breakfast and liaises with social services to secure the interests of the children.

He added: “We always see a spike in safeguarding concerns in the run-up to school holidays as children begin to worry what will happen without the security of the school.”

According to Shelter’s Generation Homeless report, released last week, there are 155 children within the Thanet local authority who are homeless or in temporary accommodation.

These children, Tate explained, are often placed far away from school, placing extra strain on the family and leaving the children vulnerable to “active” county lines gangs in the area.

A recent poll from the National Education Union revealed 63 per cent of teachers were worried more children than last year will be going hungry over the festive period.

The survey found teachers often resorted to opening food banks, running collections and preparing Christmas hampers in an effort to help out.

Shelter’s report ranked Newham as the joint worst local authority in England – with one in every 12 children homeless or in temporary accommodation.

Omar Deria, headteacher at The Cumberland School in Newham, said poverty wasn’t just an issue at Christmas but a “tragic” daily battle.

This year alone has seen five pupils made homeless, he said.

The school has even established a ‘Hardship Fund’ of £1,000 available for quick access for pupils in need.

This Christmas the school is dipping into the fund to provide a food hamper for a particularly deprived pupil whose family would otherwise go hungry.

Deria added: “I’ve worked in Newham for 13 years and it’s progressively got worse. We make sure pupils don’t go hungry in school but unless they have stability it is very difficult to teach them.”

Both Deria and Tate praised their staff and admitted dealing with child poverty on a daily basis takes its toll on staff.

Mark Phillips, headteacher of Deptford Green School in nearby Lewisham, where one in 16 children are homeless, added: “Teachers don’t teach in schools like mine unless they are dedicated to what they do.

“The tragedy is the teaching profession isn’t as well-valued as it should be by the government.”