Every day, I see learners arriving at the college I lead unable to afford breakfast or basic equipment. For some time now, people have warned of a cost-of-living crisis. It is here now. It looms large in classrooms and on campuses across the country.
Hunger is a huge distraction from effective learning. It’s why we host a community college kitchen on site, supported by Kellogg’s. Through it, students benefit from access to food and vouchers they need to set them up for the day.
But there’s only so much we can do. We are part of a bigger picture.
When times are hard, benefits become even more crucial as a financial safety net for struggling families. That’s why the current public debate about whether and how to uprate benefits is understandable and important.
However, while the level benefits are paid at is undoubtedly of the utmost importance, before getting to that question we ought to be addressing the vital issue of whether families are receiving – and aware of – all that they are entitled to.
At Trafford College, a pilot scheme is highlighting the extent to which that is not happening – and the difference it can make to lives if people are helped to claim all they can.
Kellogg’s recently partnered with Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) and they came to me with a proposal. GMPA had identified that millions of pounds in benefits were remaining unclaimed across the city. Given our previous work with Kellogg’s, I was happy to support a pilot scheme centred on the community college kitchen to see if this was correct.
So it proved. Families were indeed going without benefits they were entitled to. Ours was one of four schools and colleges across our city taking part in the pilot, which has been running since the beginning of the current school term in September. The pilot has already helped dozens of families: on average each family has received an extra £1,000 to which they were entitled but were previously unaware they could access.
To most people, £1,000 is a colossal sum – the annual UK average for raising a child is, in fact, well over £1,000. With inflation skyrocketing, this additional cashflow is nothing short of lifechanging to parents, guardians and children.
That families had been missing out on funds they were entitled to speaks to poor communication, complicated bureaucratic processes and, most of all, families needlessly going without.
What’s more, missing out on welfare is more than just a numbers game. Financial insecurity and poverty are huge contributors to poor mental health – the consequences of which are all too frequently devastating on students, their future livelihoods cruelly stunted as a result.
That’s why it was so important to me that Trafford College took part in the pilot scheme. We’re a community-focused college – helping parents and guardians hit by the cost-of-living crisis to access more support came naturally to us.
In my experience, I’ve found that schools and colleges are often best placed to offer this kind of assistance. We know our families well, so we can offer them targeted advice.
I am confident our community college kitchen, like those at the other pilot sites across the city, will undoubtedly continue to make lives better for students and their families.
Aside from the success we’re already witnessing in Greater Manchester, the scheme has a strong track record. Last year, a similar pilot took place in Glasgow. Across four schools in the city, it helped families access £700,000 in unclaimed benefits. There is clear evidence to show that we can replicate that here in Greater Manchester.
For dozens of Mancunian families’ children, a platform like our community college kitchen is a strong start and adding benefits advice into that makes it stronger still. In the current economic climate, I would encourage all colleges to look to liaise with their local councils and supportive agencies such as Citizens Advice to offer this valuable service to their communities.
We are already working beyond the pilot to expand it across our group. Every college can do the same.