THE number of Scottish children arriving for class hungry is rising at many schools as the Covid-19 economic crisis worsens, a poll of primary and secondary teachers suggests.

Twenty-seven per cent of staff questioned said that, since campuses began to re-open last month, more pupils were starting the day without having had any breakfast, compared to the same period in 2019.

In schools with a larger than average cohort of disadvantaged youngsters, this figure is as high as 40%.

Thirty-seven per cent of those surveyed thought the number had stayed the same at their schools, 2% said it had decreased a little and 17% did not know.

A further 16% said the question was not applicable because they were not at their school during the autumn term last year or because they thought no pupils started the day hungry.

Teachers have warned that not eating before lessons seriously undermines a child’s ability to learn and could hamper efforts to close the attainment gap.

It is believed the rapidly deteriorating economic backdrop is fuelling the hunger trend, with redundancies running at the highest rate since the financial crash, families battling to get by on a reduced income and job insecurity surging.

Forty-seven per cent of those surveyed said there had been a reduction in the number of teaching staff available to assist with the general welfare of pupils, and almost two-thirds (63%) fear more youngsters will be coming to school on an empty stomach once the coronavirus furlough scheme ends next month.

The findings – based on a poll of 169 primary and secondary school teachers in Scotland which was commissioned by children’s charity Magic Breakfast and food giant Heinz – have sparked calls for urgent government action.

Jo-Anne Angel, headteacher at St Bride’s RC Primary in Cowdenbeath, Fife, said: “There has definitely been an increase in individual circumstances at my own school where some families are really struggling.

“I think the economic crisis [with the impact on jobs and income] is a big factor.

“We see the effects in the classroom – lack of focus and concentration, children struggling to stay on task and general tiredness. Hunger prevents children from achieving their aspiration and fulfilling their capabilities.

“It will also increase the povertyrelated attainment gap as well. We need to ensure that, when they arrive at school, children are equipped and ready to learn.”

Ms Angel said the assistance provided by organisations such as Magic Breakfast was vitally important. “Prior to lockdown, we were providing a free breakfast to nearly half of our children in the dinner hall,” she explained.

“Lockdown itself was a real challenge [in getting food to pupils who needed it] but, thanks to the help of Magic Breakfast and Heinz, we’ve been able to obtain and deliver food to the doorsteps of those families who need that extra bit of help.

“I’m in a fortunate position in being supported by Fife Council and Magic Breakfast, and can provide a free breakfast to all the children in my school.” 

She added: “The expectation going forward is that the situation will get worse when the furlough scheme ends. I think it’s really important that schemes like the Magic Breakfast/ Heinz one are embedded within schools around Scotland.”

Senior figures at Action for Children said the coronavirus pandemic had only added to the woes of many families after years of austerity.

Paul Carberry, the charity’s Director for Scotland, said: “Families who were previously ‘just coping’ have now found themselves really struggling. With the furlough scheme ending, many of these families will be plunged into an even deeper crisis.

“In recent months, our staff have been able to draw upon resources from our own Emergency Appeal as well as the Scottish Government’s Wellbeing Fund to deliver vital assistance to vulnerable families across the country.

“We shouldn’t forget that these communities have already faced the harsh realities of austerity cuts, welfare sanctions and delays, low paying jobs with insecure hours, and now they are facing being disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

“It is clear that more needs to be done. The need for Breakfast Clubs at schools is now perhaps greater than ever as hunger affects concentration on studies and having an empty stomach doesn’t help fill a mind.

“That is why as an organisation, we will continue to urge both the Scottish and UK Governments to use all the tools available to them to support those most in need.”

Senior figures at Heinz, which has launched a film about child hunger called Silence the Rumble, said the figures should serve as a wake-up call.

Matt Mill, marketing and brand build lead at Heinz Beanz, said: “The problem of child food hunger is very real and as the research indicates, the issue has clearly been made significantly worse during the pandemic.”

Alex Cunningham, CEO of Magic Breakfast, added: “Unfortunately the results of this research show how much more there is left to do to tackle child hunger as a barrier to learning.” 

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Access to healthy and nutritious school meals is essential, given the clear benefits for pupils’ learning and health. Free school meals also provide muchneeded support and assistance, saving families, on average, £400 a child, per year. We have committed over £110 million since the outset of the pandemic to tackle and reduce food insecurity, including making £12.6 million available to local authorities to provide Free School Meal support to around 175,000 children over the summer holidays.

“Through Programme for Government we have committed further investment to support parents to work and earn more, making £7.35 million available for our Parental Employability Support Fund and extending Fair Start Scotland, our employment support service, by a further two years.

“However we recognise the support the current furlough scheme provides, and that is why we repeatedly called on the UK government to continue the scheme in some form beyond October.”