Katie Greaves is the pastoral lead at Beever primary school in Oldham, Greater Manchester, and sees first hand the impact of the cost of living crisis on her pupils and their families.
Usually on the first day of the new school year, children arrive kitted out in smart new uniforms. This year it was different.
“You would normally see children very smartly dressed on the first day of term, with brand new shoes. We’ve got children that have not come back with new shoes on – they’re definitely old shoes,” said Greaves.
Some of them have holes, are scuffed and are coming apart at the seams. “Shoes are a big issue. It will be down to cost because they are expensive. Beautiful new shiny shoes for September – it’s just not happening.”
Another change Greaves has noticed is that more children have signed up for the breakfast club. “We have some items for free and some that are not. The free options [cereal, bagels, milk or water] always go first.”
As well as the food on offer at breakfast club, Greaves spends her own money so she can ensure that any child who hasn’t eaten can enjoy a “Miss Greaves special” breakfast at the start of the day. “If they come in late to school and they have not eaten, we can’t send them to class without breakfast.
“It’s definitely getting worse,” she said. “You used to get one or two children a week coming to me saying, ‘Miss Greaves, I’ve had no breakfast. Please can I have something.’ Last year it had gone up to six or seven a week. Some families just don’t have anything in.”
Greaves said she had also seen an increase in the number of parents struggling to provide uniforms. There was huge demand when the school arranged a “uniform rehoming” where parents bring in outgrown items and replace them with bigger sizes. A charity also gifted new underwear and socks for the school to hand out.
During the long summer holiday, Greaves remained in contact with a number of vulnerable families. “These families don’t stop having these issues when it’s not term-time.” Then, before the start of the new term, she did a ring-round to make sure they had everything they needed ahead of school starting.
“If they do need food, or last bits of uniform, I’ll see if we can source that for them, so there’s not that added anxiety.”
Personal hygiene and dental health are also big concerns. “I’ve got quite a few children that are in need of a dentist, but can’t find one. They’re getting repeat abscesses and now need teeth extracted.” In some cases it’s not just one or two teeth, but five or six.
“Families have not got the resources to cope. They’ve not got toothpaste or toothbrushes. They come to school having just rolled out of bed and put their uniform on.”
Greaves has restocked her bottom drawer with supplies: face cloths, soap, deodorant, baby wipes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes and bobbles, and sanitary products for some of the older girls.
The community the school serves is disadvantaged – 57% of the 220 pupils are eligible for additional pupil premium funding – and some of the housing is poor. “We have families coming to us whose children have been awake most of the night due to rats and mice scratching in the walls,” said Greaves.
“We had one family who had to have their kitchen ripped out and replaced because of rats – it was infested with them.
“It’s the disturbance to sleep which is the biggest factor for our children. If they are not well-rested and they come in to school tired – that’s an awful thought, to be lying in bed hearing rats and mice scurrying around.”
Oldham council was approached for comment.