Pupils in families who reported using food banks during the pandemic received lower GCSE grades – almost half a grade per subject on average, a report suggests.
Negative financial experiences during the pandemic were also linked to poor mental health of young people and their parents, the research suggests.
Rates of psychological distress were substantially higher in households who started using food banks in the pandemic (63% among parents and 53% among pupils), compared with 33% and 41% for those not using food banks, according to the Cosmo (Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities) study.
The study, led by the University College London (UCL) Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Sutton Trust, suggests that 82% of parents who report financial struggles are at high risk of psychological distress and more than half (53%) of young people report the same.
The study is tracking the lives of a cohort of 13,000 young people in England who are currently taking A-level exams and other qualifications this summer.
Pupils in families who reported using food banks received lower GCSE grades than they would be expected to – even when previous grades and other aspects of their household finances are taken into account, the report says.
Significant efforts were made during the pandemic to provide children with school meals – including the high-profile campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford – but food poverty still hit many families.
A survey of 12,828 pupils aged 16 and 17 (and 9,330 of their parents) between October 2021 and April 2022 suggests that the majority (57%) of households where children went hungry were not eligible for free school meals (FSM) during that time, and 36% of families using food banks were not FSM eligible.
Currently, households in England receiving Universal Credit (UC) must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for FSMs.
A call for FSMs to be extended to all families on UC should be “urgently addressed”, the report suggests.
One in 10 young people were living in households classed as food insecure, with many reporting running out of food, skipping meals, and 5% of parents reported going a whole day without eating, it adds.
Jake Anders, associate professor and deputy director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said: “The mental health and life chances of young people and their parents are being dramatically affected by post-pandemic cost-of-living pressures.
“And these impacts are likely to be long-lasting, given the seeming link between food insecurity and performance in exams.
“That so many are food insecure but would not be considered eligible for free school meals under current rules suggests that the eligibility criteria are in need of urgent review.
“No young people should be going hungry, especially if this has the potential for serious long-term impacts.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The link between financial insecurity, mental health and academic attainment is very concerning.
“Young people have already faced many challenges due to the pandemic, and now they and their families are facing serious financial pressures due to the cost-of-living crisis.
“Unless action is taken, there is likely to be a worsening of mental health which will affect a whole generation.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “There is no doubt that living in poverty puts children and young people at a huge disadvantage. It damages children’s health and wellbeing, in turn affecting their ability to attend school regularly and to fully focus on learning. Pupils who arrive at school hungry, cold or tired are not ready to learn.
“It is frankly shameful that in one of the world’s richest countries, schools are having to set up food banks and warm hubs, offer use of showers and washing machines, and fundraise to extend free school meals – all things our members have told us they are having to do.”
He added: “The Government must urgently act to address the root causes of the scandal of rising child poverty, which is harming not only children’s education, but also their life chances.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “No child should go hungry throughout the day and the fact that so many children accessing food banks are not eligible for free school meals is a harrowing indictment of restrictive eligibility criteria.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We understand the pressures that many families are facing and we are working to address some of the long term challenges left in the wake of the pandemic. Our National Tutoring programme is helping those pupils most in need of support and has had over three million courses started to date.
“We are also supporting the most vulnerable pupils through pupil premium funding, which is increasing to almost £2.9 billion in 2023-24 – the highest cash terms rate since this funding began.”