It was a sight Lorna Jackson, a London headteacher, had never expected to see: two pupils at her primary school sleeping behind bins at the station with their parents. “Mum, dad and the two little children were all sleeping on a mattress they’d found. The family had been evicted and the children had very little to eat.”
Jackson’s school, Maryland primary in Stratford, is in a deprived area of east London. As well as suffering homelessness, her pupils are regularly victims of domestic violence. “I realised that my role had changed. Unless I addressed our children’s wellbeing, their education was not going to have impact at all.”
Jackson is not alone in feeling this way. As Education Guardian recently reported, teachers are reaching into their own pockets to pay for anything from pregnancy tests to funerals for families at their schools. But not all staff can afford this. Teachers’ charities are seeing an increase in the number of teachers who are themselves struggling to make ends meet, with twice as many education workers applying for financial assistance grants from Turn2Us in 2017, compared with 2010. When some teachers are in dire financial circumstances themselves, how can they help their pupils get the long-term support these many children so desperately need?
Jackson turned to the education charity School-Home Support (SHS). Using money from her pupil premium budget, she installed an SHS practitioner in the school full time. Schools with these practitioners can access the charity’s welfare fund, which buys items for struggling families such as food, washing machines and school uniforms. The charity can also support families in navigating the benefits systems and court orders.
Jackson has helped more than 100 families at her school this way. For example, her SHS practitioner realised a young pupil was stealing from classmates’ lunchboxes to feed her baby sister. The girl, her parents and her eight siblings had no access to benefits and were living in squalid accommodation and struggling to get to food banks, so the charity paid for a weekly food shop (carried out and delivered by Jackson herself), toothpaste, clothes, shoes and bedding for the children. The SHS practitioner also organised emergency help from social services and English lessons, and helped the parents find work and access child benefits.
The practitioner’s placement does not always cost a school money, says the charity’s chief executive, Jaine Stannard, who urges all teachers needing help to get in touch: “Sometimes the work can be partially or fully funded by our partners, so it’s really helpful if schools register their interest.”
The charity offers free membership to schools that cannot afford or do not need a full-time practitioner. This gives school staff access to SHS’s online forum, , for example, where they can ask about accessing food banks and other resources, and talk about pastoral problems.
Another organisation, The Red Box Project, delivers free sanitary products to schools and colleges across the UK, and reports new schools and groups signing up each month. Freda, an online retailer of organic, eco-friendly sanitary towels and tampons, donates products to the project and allows its customers to do the same. “By providing these products for free for schoolgirls, we are allowing them to attend school all month with dignity,” says Affi Parvizi-Wayne, founder of Freda.
The Trussell Trust food charity wants schools to know they can sign up to hold vouchers for their local food bank. Referring families for emergency food in the short term will not only help with families’ immediate needs, it will enable volunteers at the foodbank to talk to them about other services they can access for long-term help, the charity says.
Quaker Social Action is keen to help families struggling to pay for pupils’ funeralsand funeral-related debt. It also offers advice on how bereaved families can get help from employers, the government and other organisations and can put families in contact with children’s funeral directors who may be willing to waive their costs.
“In the past, we’ve had a headteacher get in touch after becoming concerned about a pupil’s situation at home after a parental bereavement,” says spokesperson Giles Robinson. “Our advice on ways to raise money and heavily reduce cost can help families like this avoid debt and further grief.”