TEACHERS claim the “politics of austerity” is leaving Scottish schoolchildren so hungry they have to steal from their classmates just to be able to eat.

Members of the EIS teachers’ union, responding to questions about life in Scotland’s schools in 2015, said there had been huge increases in poverty, which had led to a huge rise in the number of pupils going to school hungry or unwell.

According to the survey, there has been a 22 per cent increase in the number of children older than the P3 age group taking free school meals. Currently all P1-P3 pupils in Scotland are eligible for free meals.

Attendance at breakfast clubs has also increased by 27 per cent, with a seven per cent increase in the number of parents requesting referrals to food banks. The effect of the lack of food, the EIS say, is a clear deterioration in the mental and physical wellbeing of of the pupils.

Nearly three-quarters of the teachers surveyed said they had noticed an increase in the number of children displaying signs of anxiety, stress and other mental health problems. Just over half said they had noticed an increase in physical health problems, including headaches, lethargy and weight issues.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said the survey findings were “a stark warning of the deep and damaging impact of poverty and the politics of austerity”.

Flanagan said: “One of the most troubling findings is evidence of increasing food poverty affecting more pupils in our schools. Fifty-one per cent of responses reported an increase in the number of pupils coming to school without any food, such as the traditional ‘play-piece’ that has been a feature in Scottish playgrounds for many years.

Additionally, 19 per cent of respondents identified an increase in the number of incidents of children asking for and even stealing food from other pupils – a worryingly large increase which highlights the desperate circumstances that many children are finding themselves in.”

He continued: “The fact that teachers are reporting such very high increases in both mental and physical health issues in pupils is a huge concern, and highlights the true cost of political choices that have driven more families into poverty and widened the gap between the rich and the poor.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said the survey findings were “truly shocking”.

The spokesman said: “Quite simply, no child should be going to school hungry. This Government is taking many positive actions to tackle the impacts of poverty on our children.

“Tackling inequalities is at the heart of our Programme for Government. We have scrapped prescription charges, are encouraging employers to pay the Living Wage and are investing £296 million over three years to protect people from UK Government’s welfare cuts and austerity agenda which are increasing the numbers of children living in poverty.

“It is now one year since we introduced our policy to provide free school meals for all P1-3 pupils and in that year, families of eligible children who have taken a free meal will have saved around £380. As official figures show, about 80 per cent of P1-3 pupils took a free meal in 2015 and we will continue to work with education authorities, schools and teachers to ensure continued promotion of their uptake. Our action is helping to ensure that every child in Scotland gets the best possible start in life.

“We will also continue to refine and develop a Scottish approach to tackling poverty, through our Ministerial Advisory Group on Child Poverty working with Scotland’s Independent Poverty Adviser and others – reflecting the importance we continue to place on this challenge.”

Last week the Child Poverty Action Group said children who received free school meals were suffering during the holidays as their parents could not afford to give them a similar holiday experience as their classmates.

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