Food poverty is hindering some primary-school pupils’ ability to learn basic literacy and numeracy, according to the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN).
In his speech to about 1,000 school leaders the group's annual conference in Citywest Convention Centre in Dublin today, Gerry Murphy, IPPN President, said that as many as one in five principals surveyed reported that more pupils are arriving to school hungry.
Other conditions from which more pupils are suffering include depression, emotional disturbance, attention disorders, violent behaviour and family trauma, according to IPPN’s surveys of primary school leaders.
Mr Murphy described food poverty as a "worrying function of the recession", and urged policy-makers to better understand the link between learning and physical and mental wellbeing.
"In concentrating on the three Rs - reading, ’riting and ’rithmitic - we can neglect the new fourth ‘R’ in education - relationships," said Mr Murphy.
"Our children’s ability to form and sustain relationships, manage conflict, build self-confidence, and develop interpersonal and problem-solving skills is fundamental to their physical and emotional wellbeing and their development as human beings."
Mr Murphy said children are faced with complex social challenges, with new forms of disadvantage affecting their school experience, including middle-class families losing their homes, cyber-bullying, early sexualisation, and parental drug and alcohol abuse.
"If our education model tests only literacy and numeracy, we must ask, how do we know whether we are equipping our children for the life challenges they will face?" he asked.
Mr Murphy also criticised policy-makers for their failure to accept electronic school attendance records.
"Ireland is becoming the European hub of the global IT industry, and we are reminded of our need to prepare children for the knowledge economy," he said.
"How does this vision for the future blend with the reality for those children who daily watch their teacher manually entering data into the roll book?"
Mr Murphy urged the Department to test electronic school management systems already used in some schools.
IPPN’s conference is the largest gathering of primary school principals in Europe this year.