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Food banks in schools illustrates depth of need in England

Schools are carrying an unequal burden of responding to long-term poverty that risks going unseen in policy, says a new report by IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society.

The researchers raise concerns that the work schools are doing to support their communities is not recognised by inspections or wider policy and is either precariously funded or not funded at all. This risks exacerbating disparities between schools that serve disadvantaged versus advantaged communities. 

The report is informed by research project ‘Food banks in schools: exploring the impact on children’s learning’, funded by the British Educational Research Association (BERA). 

Conducted by Professor Alice Bradbury and Sharon Vince at IOE’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP), the research set out to investigate the growing use of food banks in schools. It explores what motivates schools to provide food banks, and how they operate them, through case studies of six primary schools in England. 

The results serve to illustrate the current depth of need experienced by struggling families, with the aid these schools offering stretching beyond food to include clothing, uniform, shoes and household products and toiletries. 

The report states that “children are affected by a complex web of policy (housing, benefits, employment law) and economic decisions, and the school is at the frontline in dealing with the consequences.” The Covid-19 pandemic raised awareness of families’ food insecurity, with widespread school closures meaning a halt to free school meals for children in families with low incomes.  

This experience appears to have emboldened school leaders to step in and resolve social problems themselves in the absence of outside support. School leaders report being motivated by a continuing moral obligation to help in the face of the cost of-living crisis, which has resulted in more families using food banks than at any other period (Trussell Trust, 2023). 

The daily opportunity to talk to parents when parents drop off and collect their children meant that teachers were ‘keenly aware’ of issues faced by their pupil’s families, more than might occur at secondary schools. School leaders reported this closeness and concern for their wellbeing both served to motivate their provision of food and goods and helped to foster home-school relationships. 

Considerable positive impacts of food banks also extended to improvements in children’s learning, school participation, wellbeing and sense of belonging. 

Simply being located at the school, as opposed to a church or community centre, was viewed as a more practical solution for families as well as feeling like a safer environment to access help. This served to reduce associated stigma for parents and children and thereby affecting how likely they were to use them.  

How schools presented the food bank initiatives was also a factor in reducing stigma, with some schools operating nominal or voluntary ‘pay what you feel’ models to avoid ‘handout’ stigma. For some schools, presenting the food bank as a green initiative to reduce food waste and ‘save food from the bin’ was a particularly effective, however most schools did not present their food banks as having any environmental motivation. 

Professor Bradbury commented: “This research reveals the extent of the work schools do to support not just children but their families too. This work needs to be recognised and funded, in the absence of other services. There is a real risk that the schools spending time and money on supporting families are disadvantaged compared to those in more affluent areas.”  

Research Assistant Sharon Vince said: “Children are arriving at school too hungry to learn, whilst financial pressures are causing stress amongst families, impacting upon relationships and learning at home. Whilst the research originally focused on food, we heard how schools are providing clothing, shoes and hygiene products. They are supporting children and families to participate in 'normal' events, such as wearing a costume for world book day and ensuring that families can celebrate Christmas, for example.  

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, considerable attention was paid to this additional work, far beyond their remit of educating children, that schools were engaging in to support families with their wider wellbeing. This research demonstrates that this support is ongoing and, in many cases, expanding due to the cost-of-living crisis. However, the time and resources dedicated to this help is no longer recognised in policy." 


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