Food shortages affecting one in five families with children on free school meals, survey suggests

Survey by the University of Sussex suggests action is needed to support homeschooling for the most vulnerable children

Food shortages are making homeschooling difficult for one in five families with children on free school meals, according to a new survey.

The survey of more than 3,400 parents, undertaken by psychologists at the University of Sussex in 2020, revealed that pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) were more likely to struggle with their school work because of household noise, lack of space, inferior technology and internet access, and even shortages of food.

Among families with primary school children eligible for FSM, 19% reported lack of food as a barrier to homeschooling, compared to 3% of families that reported comfortable income levels. The figures were slightly better for secondary school pupils – but within this age group, a reported 10% of parents with FSM-eligible children cited a lack of food as a barrier to learning, compared with 2% of non-FSM children.

[Evidence] suggests that for some children, when the most basic of needs are not being met, their education can suffer – Dr Matthew Easterbrook, University of Sussex

The survey asked parents of FSM-eligible pupils about other homeschooling challenges, such as technology and domestic environment. Among secondary pupils, 39% reported that a lack of technology made learning from home more difficult – the figure for non-FSM children was 19%.

According to the survey, privately educated students were more than twice as likely to receive online pupil-teacher interaction, and almost five times more likely to receive online peer interaction.

These inequalities mean FSM-eligible children are more likely to spend less than an hour studying a day than their peers – at primary level, the survey suggests, the figure is more than a third (34%) and more than a fifth at secondary level (23%).

Dr Matthew Easterbrook, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and the project’s lead researcher, said: “The results show that parents of pupils from disadvantaged families – those who are eligible for free school meals, who have lower levels of education, or who are financially struggling – are much more likely to report that learning from home is challenging.

“A number of different aspects of their home environment made learning more difficult for these pupils, including levels of noise, lack of space, insufficient technology and internet, and, in some cases, even a lack of food.

“On this last point, amongst parents of primary school pupils from families who were financially struggling, 19% reported that a lack of food made learning from home more difficult. This suggests that for some children, when the most basic of needs are not being met, their education can suffer.

“These results show that school closures disproportionately disrupt the education of those who are most economically disadvantaged, suggesting that educational inequalities are likely to rise because of the pandemic.”


Read more: Headteacher’s blog: ‘To be asked to set up a test centre with little to no notice was verging on comedic’

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