Schools are finding beds, providing showers for pupils and washing uniforms as child poverty spirals out of control, headteachers from across England have told the Observer.

School leaders said that as well as hunger they were now trying to mitigate exhaustion, with increasing numbers of children living in homes without enough beds or unable to sleep because they were cold. They warned that “desperate” poverty was driving problems with behaviour, persistent absence and mental health.

The head of a primary school in a deprived area in north-west England, speaking anonymously to avoid identifying vulnerable children, said: “We have a child who we put in the shower a couple of times a week.” He described the family’s bathroom as “disgusting” and said they couldn’t afford to buy cleaning products.

His school routinely washed uniforms for children whose families didn’t have a washing machine.

The school recently stepped in to help after discovering a pupil begging outside a supermarket and its free breakfast club was “really needed”. But lack of sleep had become another big symptom of poverty – and a barrier to learning.

“We’ve got a lot of kids in homes with not enough beds or a mum sleeping with two or three children,” the head said. Support staff would often take children out of class who weren’t coping because of exhaustion to let them sleep for an hour or two. “Some children are falling asleep in lessons, and not just the little ones,” he said.

The school had many children living in “desperate neglect”. “Kids are sleeping on sofas, in homes with smashed windows, no curtains, or mice,” he said. “I come out of some of these properties and get really upset.”

A report published on Friday by the Child of the North campaign, led by eight leading northern universities, and the Centre for Young Lives thinktank, warned that after decades of cuts to public services, schools were now the “frontline of the battle against child poverty”, and at risk of being “overwhelmed”. It called on the government to increase funding to help schools support the more than 4 million children now living in poverty in the UK.

Anne Longfield, founder of the Centre for Young Lives and the government’s former children’s commissioner, said: “The government has dismantled public services over the past decade and schools are the last people standing. They need proper support to tackle child poverty.”

Children are often ashamed to admit their families are living on the edge. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Katrina Morley, chief executive of Tees Valley Education trust, which runs four primary academies and one special school, all with exceptionally high numbers of children on free school meals, described sleep as “a real issue”. “We have children without beds or they might have to share with siblings,” she said. “Some don’t have enough bedding and no heating so they can’t sleep because they are cold.”

The trust works with local charities to provide families with support on issues like finding beds, and has also discreetly donated blankets over the winter.

A teacher at a primary school in the south-east who works with children at risk of exclusion, 90% of whom are from working families relying on food banks, said children were vaping and buying cheap energy drinks “to suppress their hunger”. Their behaviour was “erratic” as a result. “Every child I deal with is fighting issues that would keep us off work,” he added. “We can’t just teach in a bubble and ignore that.”

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Jonny Uttley, chief executive of the the Education Alliance, which runs 11 schools in Hull and East Yorkshire, said hunger or an inability to replace or wash uniforms were the most overt signs of poverty they saw. Some of their schools now provided some children with PE kits and washed them between lessons.

“We’ve got families who can’t afford the electricity to run a washing machine, or it’s broken and they can’t replace it,” he said. “Or parents are simply struggling to cope.”

But in secondary school, where teachers didn’t see parents at the school gate and many young people felt ashamed to admit their family was suddenly on the edge, working out how to step in could be harder, he said. His trust relied on pastoral staff who keep in touch with families, but Uttley warned that although “poverty is in every school in the country now” many cash-strapped schools were being forced to cut pastoral staff just when they were needed most.

Ben Davis, head of St Ambrose Barlow RC high in Salford, said: “There is this simplistic, romantic idea that education lifts people out of poverty, but you have to do something to mitigate the impacts of poverty or children can’t learn.”

His school employs a full-time therapist, and she encounters many young people who feel ashamed of growing up in poverty. Davis said this made them vulnerable to criminal exploitation. “We feel if we don’t try to help, who else will?” he added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals more than any government in the past half a century – doubling the number of children receiving them since 2010.”

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