At half past seven in the morning at Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport, near Manchester, the kids are lining up.
This school, which takes students 11 to 16 years old, is at the forefront of an initiative which speaks volumes about how the cuts programme in the UK is failing not just those at the very bottom, but low-paid workers as well.
The college became aware that many children were starting to look pale, faint, and lose concentration by about 11 in the morning.
They realised it was because they hadn’t eaten since the previous day. Students were going to school on an empty stomach having not had breakfast.
Twenty-eight per cent of the children at the school get free meals because their parents receive government benefits. It also means 72 per cent aren’t because their parents are probably working at a level on or around the minimum wage.
The cutoff is 16,000 British pounds a year, or more than $20,000.
What this suggests, then, is that children of low-paid workers – people in jobs – aren’t being fed, because their parents can’t afford to.
In response to this the school had no choice but to offer heavily subsidised breakfast, lunch and supper, partly out of its own budget.
Children, said the staff, often buy sandwiches for just over a pound and a hot drink and take them home. The fear is that if the school didn’t offer this service then the children would have no recourse to a hot meal of any sort.
The school also said mealtimes were important in that they got children sitting down together. I took this to mean it instilled discipline, but in fact, said the staff, the problem was that many of the children didn’t have a table at home to sit at. So it offered a sense of normality which home could not.
Poverty and lack of access to luxuries for the poor in Britain is not a new story. But it’s just starting to be recognised that low pay, which has stayed stubbornly low for years now, coupled with inflation across the board, is meaning that people in work, as well as those out of it, are genuinely struggling to provide the most basic things to their families.
Teachers across Britain have offered stories on social networks about how they give the children their own food, or mend their clothes.
No doubt there’s a constituency which thinks parents might have only themselves to blame and should be able to find a way of coping better.
But at a nearby foodbank in the town of Oldham (foodbanks are rocketing in Britain at the moment) a volunteer described how he’d seen grown men break down in tears at the shame of having to ask for charitable help in feeding their kids.
As I write this there are two big stories in the British news. One is that the government, which still clings to austerity despite so much evidence that it isn’t working, wants to break the historic link between benefits and inflation. This is surely bound to make things harder.
Separately the coalition has announced it’s changing the exam system. Tests are too easy, it says. Britain has dumbed down.
That’s certainly true, and no doubt the new system – an English Baccalaureate – will be a far sterner examination.
But this is where poverty, hunger and achievement collide. The British Schools Food Trust says there’s empirical evidence that well-fed children perform better at school than hungry ones (obvious, I know).
They’ve called for universal free school meals as an investment in education. Yet the poor in Britain get poorer. How are children from worse off families supposed to compete with well-fed, wealthier children in tougher exams or compete in the jobs market?
Politicians here, particularly liberal ones, go on endlessly about “social mobility” – the potential for people from less advantaged backgrounds to compete with richer ones. The wealth and educational divide in Britain is making that more and more difficult.
And on a far more basic level – and as the excellent British food writer Jay Rayner has observed – this is a national scandal in a wealthy country, a betrayal of the expectations of the next generation.