SCHOOLS are being urged to “poverty proof” their uniforms and ban items of clothing that are deemed to be unnecessary or excessively expensive.
Members of Holyrood’s Education Committee made the plea after carrying out an inquiry into the links between poverty and attainment at school – with MSPs “appalled” to hear about the number of youngsters who come to classes hungry.
They hailed the work some councils are doing to tackle the problem, highlighting Glasgow’s provision of free meals for all pupils up to P4, and North Lanarkshire’s efforts to tackle “holiday hunger” by giving some youngsters lunches during school holidays.
But they also voiced concern about the cost of some items of school uniform, and warned that moving to online payments for school dinners or trips could disadvantage families without access to computers.
Committee convener James Dornan was clear that MSPs had been told “aspects of UK social security policy are the single biggest reason for the increase in child poverty”.
He added: “We heard time and again that teachers are increasingly seeing children who are affected by poverty, including children coming to school hungry.
“That this is an increasing problem in Scotland is utterly appalling, but we know that this is something that schools cannot tackle alone.”
With First Minister Nicola Sturgeon having made closing the attainment gap between rich and poorer youngsters her top priority, Mr Dornan said action is needed to “ensure that our schools do not have costs which impact on young people’s time at school, including their opportunity to learn”.
He added: “This is not always about big changes, but rather a recognition that even the smallest policy can sometimes have a serious impact on families experiencing poverty.”
During the inquiry, MSPs heard how some families cannot afford the resources to help youngsters do their homework, whether that be craft materials such as glue and glitter in primary school, or access to IT and the internet for older pupils.
The committee was also told “some families cannot afford basic amenities such as hot water for showers or beds, which can impact on young people’s attendance at school and readiness to learn when they are there”.
The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, told MSPs that pupils are sometimes not able to participate in trips, or turn up at school without the necessary PE kit.
“Some kids come into school and tell teachers that they are hungry,” the union said.
“Some steal food or items of equipment from one another at times, and some appear visibly unwell – pale and complaining of headaches – or have unexplained absences from school.”
MSPs made a number of recommendations on how to tackle the problem, including calling on councils to “invite schools to poverty-proof their uniform policies”.
The Scottish Government is being urged to survey local education authorities to establish which of these bodies charge for in-school activities, and how much these charges are.
Another suggestion is for ministers to look at rolling out a system of using more schools as hubs where families can get advice on how to maximise their income and what help they may be entitled to.
The Scottish Government is providing £120 million to schools under the Pupil Equity Fund, with the cash going to head teachers to determine how to spend.
The committee stressed “the impact on headteachers’ workload of these new responsibilities should be acknowledged”, and also said: “When introducing new responsibilities, the Scottish Government, through Education Scotland, should seek to identify ways to alleviate workload in other parts of the headteacher role.”
Mr Dornan said: “Clearly the Scottish Government, education authorities and schools are working hard to address these issues, but there is still more to do.
“There has to be more support to help teachers and school staff who are working so tirelessly on the front-line to help in schools. There also needs to be more recognition of the value of youth workers in our communities and in schools supporting our young people.”