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Washing clothes, serving breakfast… how schools help Islington kids on breadline

Shock figures reveal how almost half of children in ‘rich borough’ now live in poverty

17 May, 2019 — By Calum Fraser

Damien Parrott, executive headteacher at Montem and Drayton Park primary schools

TEACHERS are having to wash pupils’ clothes and escort them to school as “heartbreaking” new figures show that almost half of Islington children live in poverty.

Frontline staff at schools across the borough are taking on extra responsibilities as more families sink below the breadline.

The alarming statistics from the End Child Poverty (ECP) group, which show more than 22,000 children in Islington live in poverty, have led to fresh criticism of cuts in public spend­ing.

Damien Parrott, executive headteacher at Montem and Drayton Park Primary schools, said: “We see children coming in who clearly aren’t having breakfast, so we provide a free breakfast club. There are children who might live in very poor housing, so we provide support and advice.”

He added: “Poverty creates a vicious generational cycle. If you do less well at school, you are less likely to get a good job. You are more likely to remain in poverty as an adult and parent yourself.”

Mr Parrott, who has worked in Islington primary schools since 2005, said: “At Drayton Park I had to start getting staff to do the school run, because parents couldn’t cope. This means teachers are having to take on more roles outside their core teaching. This adds more strain to the system and the school.”

Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz

The numbers of children in poverty in Islington rose from 42 per cent last year to 47 per cent this year.

Assuming there is a similar number of children in the borough, this means that roughly 2,000 more children fell below the breadline.

Mr Parrott stressed that it is not the parents’ fault. Poverty is a debilitating experience which requires public funds to alleviate, he said, adding that he first started noticing issues when adult social services cuts were introduced.

“Childhood poverty is increasing largely because of cuts to public services,” he said. “These are happening because of the government’s austerity programme. The public sector is a jigsaw of interlinked services, working together to support people in need.

“Cuts to adult and children’s social care, to police and the NHS, to youth clubs and community organisations do not happen in isolation. They impact on all other interlinked services, including schools. These services mitigate the effects of poverty.”

The council has lost 70 per cent of its budget since 2010. In the past three years, the housing and adult social care budget has fallen by £10million.

Mr Parrott said: “Living in poverty as a child creates ongoing stress. Your parents and carers are more likely to be highly stressed. You are likely to be living in crowded, inadequate housing.

“You may well often be hungry. You are more likely to experience crime and violence. Poverty creates insecurity about the future and denies people control over their lives.

“Being continually stressed and hungry is very bad for school. Children living in poverty will find it harder to concentrate and harder to control their emotions and behaviour. Stress and deprivation create low self-esteem and a limited sense of possibility in life.”

Lucy Benson

A family is considered as being in poverty if the household’s income is less than 60 per cent of the national average.

Islington’s cabinet member for children’s and family services Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz said: “I have heard of schools having to offer washing services, because families can’t afford it.

“It’s important to be able to go to school, feel supported, create a safe environment and take pressure off families.”

She added: “It’s heart-breaking really. There’s no way around it. We’re the fifth wealthiest country in the world. There should not be this many children in poverty.”

Islington has the fourth-worst child poverty rates out of any local authority in the country, according to the ECP data. ECP director of policy Louisa McGeehan said that high housing and living costs in the borough contributed to the problem.

Lucy Benson, adventure playgrounds manager at Islington Play Association (IPA), said: “I’m really shocked it has gone up to 47 per cent. It is such a rich borough, with so many displays of wealth.

“These children have a sense of the world that is around them and they are not a part of it. It is quite crushing.

“I think you can link the poverty to some of the violence in inner-city boroughs. There is a sense of hopelessness that leads to violence against self and others . Being trapped in a small place makes people lash out.”

IPA, which is supported by the council, is attempting to address food poverty issues affecting children by providing healthy meals through the free “lunch bunch” programme.

Ms Benson, who supervises children as they play for free in the playground, added: “One boy came in. He was about seven or eight years old. He got upset that his clothes were getting dirty. He said: ‘Oh no, dad is going to kill us.’ The dad said they don’t have any other clothes to wear.”

The ECP figures, released on Wednesday, come from research carried out by Professor Donald Hirsch and Dr Juliet Stone at the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.

A government spokeswoman said: “This study is based on estimates rather than actual measurements of income.

“Children growing up in working households are five times less likely to be in relative poverty, which is why we are supporting families to improve their lives through work.

“And statistics show employment is at a joint record high. Wages are outstripping inflation, and income inequality and absolute poverty are lower than in 2010.

“But we recognise some families need more support. That is why we continue to spend £95billion a year on working-age benefits and provide free school meals to more than one million of the country’s most disadvantaged children to ensure every child has the best start in life.”

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