TEACHERS in Carlisle regularly feed children who arrive at their school hungry because their parents are struggling to make ends meet.

That is the shocking reality of daily life for scores of north Cumbrian youngsters, according to some educational professionals in the city, including two head teachers - though local Conservative politicians insist poverty has not increased in recent years.

The public sector workers' union Unison has published a national survey revealing how Cumbrian teaching assistants have spent their own money to help cash-strapped families pay for uniforms, trips and food.

More than one fifth (22 per cent) had given parents money for lunch or uniforms.

Just over half (54 per cent) said parents increasingly needed help.

The survey findings - based on information from more than 4,000 teaching assistants - came as no surprise to two Carlisle primary school head teachers, Cumbria Law Centre, and staff at Carlisle Youth Zone, a charity that works with around 1,500 children every week, a third from families which struggle financially.

Clem Coady, head teacher at Stoneraise Primary School at Durdar, on Carlisle's southern fringe, said the Unison claims about families in poverty were not an exaggeration.

"For whatever reason, we have children who turn up at school without having had breakfast, and we'll provide something to keep them going - a piece of toast, or a fruit based snack," he said.

"There are kids who turn up and the last time they had a hot meal was the day before.

"I'd say it's generally down to the impact of poverty - and it's working families as well as non-working families; families on low income who may have a high amount of debt to service."

One report published last year claimed that as many as 20,000 children across Cumbria live below the breadline, with an estimated one in eight households in the county coping on less than £10,000 a year - compared to a national average family income of £26,000.

"I've seen the impact poverty has on families first hand," continued Mr Coady.

"You have families running two or three jobs; you have parents working zero-hours contracts, so they can't manage a budget because they don't know how much money will be coming in from week to week."

He said some Cumbrian head teachers - himself included - were adopting simple measures to help the most hard-pressed families.

This included ensuring uniforms are simple and easily affordable from supermarkets.

"Some secondary school uniforms can cost £500," he said. He recalled how a teacher he worked with had reported concerns about what she feared was possibly neglect after a pupil arrived in school in obviously dirty clothes.

"The mother simply couldn't afford the washing powder," said Mr Coady.

Staff had discreetly ensured the child's uniform was washed until the parent involved was back on her feet financially.

Graham Frost, head teacher at Robert Ferguson Primary School in Denton Holme, Carlisle, said he has seen more evidence of families struggling financially.

"We're often trying to help parents who are struggling to even put food on the table," he said.

"We sometimes give children breakfast. My worry is the way we are going in this country; we seem to be on a trajectory that is taking us further into trouble.

"There have been efforts by this government to pare back the welfare state and you are going to see consequences of that."

Further disturbing evidence of childhood poverty came from Lynsey Buckle, from Carlisle Youth Zone.

"Hunger is probably one of the most prolific issues we see with kids," she said.

"We speak to teachers and head teachers, particularly in primary schools, and this is par for the course.

"If you have a young person who turns up hungry and we don't feed them they're going to go to school hungry.

"So they're not going to be able to concentrate; and they may become disruptive to get attention. They can then be quickly singled out as being a 'bad' kid."

Some children can arrive at the Youth Zone on a Monday morning without having eaten a proper meal all weekend.

"It can leave a big gap between children who are being supported and those going without," said Lynsey.

She recalled a social media post from one parent unable to afford the electricity for her washing machine.

"It's electric or food," the woman wrote after appealing for help to wash her child's clothes.

Keswick Cumbria county councillor Tony Lywood, who hopes to win Copeland for the Labour Party at the next general election, said: "Austerity always punishes those who can least afford it

"While this Tory government has given nearly £10 billion in tax cuts to the rich in the last 5 years, education and the staff therein have suffered.

"The reality is that the Tories care nothing for public spending and have an agenda of cuts, cuts and more cuts.

"Boris Johnson may appear an amiable and jocular joker but he is a clear about his direction of travel.

"Austerity will not be over until we have removed these hard-hearted uncaring elitist politicians and replace them with a Labour government with an agenda of long overdue investment into our public services."

'No evidence' of a rise in poverty, says councillor

Conservative Gareth Ellis is deputy leader of Carlisle City Council.

There is no statistical evidence that poverty has increased in recent years, he said.

"There's absolutely no evidence for that - either in Cumbria or nationally," he insisted.

"There's been no statistical change in that since measurements began in 2007.

"Anyone can get into a financial mess."

Mr Ellis questioned a definition of poverty which included a weekly income of below £320.

He said that pay for those in the lowest paid jobs had been raised at a rate far greater average earnings have grown.

Government policy aimed to lift people out of poverty but it can result from particular circumstances and choices, he said.

Mr Ellis added: "I was brought up on a council estate by a single parent. There was never a day I went hungry. I don't remember once ever having to miss a meal, or my mum having to miss a meal."

Carlisle MP John Stevenson, who has backed various investment projects that aim to stimulate Carlisle's economic growth, said employment is the key issue.

"The best route out of poverty is a job," he said.

"That's why employment is so important.

"Unfortunately, there are some circumstances where families are struggling and clearly help is needed. I give full credit to for schools for what they do; and to the Youth Zone for what they do.

"But if you look at the wider context, employment is at its highest level since the 1970s and unemployment is at its lowest level, so clearly people can get jobs. The living wage has increased well above inflation; and it's going to increase further; and the tax threshold has increased well above inflation.

"But there are certain families and individuals who get into circumstances where they need help. There are families who struggle to deal adequately with their parental responsibilities."