Time for all schools to join the breakfast club

The schemes boost health and learning for little cost — but they should be free for every child

A handful of education researchers have recently discovered the cheapest, most cost-effective way of dramatically improving children’s performance at school. It doesn’t require new teaching methods, more homework or more stress. It’s a simple solution: provide a free school breakfast club.

Too many children in Britain start school hungry. The charity Magic Breakfast, which works with schools, puts the number at half a million. Two years ago the all-party parliamentary group on hunger found that between a fifth and a quarter of children in Birkenhead were coming to school hungry every day. A few had eaten nothing since their school lunch the day before. The Food Standards Agency reports that almost one in ten households can’t afford to eat regularly or healthily. A sixth of teachers give food to pupils once a week. A fifth of all children breakfast on sweets, crisps or Coke.

Voluntary breakfast clubs have been spreading since the 1990s, as teachers realised that children distracted by hunger can’t learn effectively. Magic Breakfast, founded in 2003, now supplies food to more than 400 schools in disadvantaged areas. Three years ago the Education Endowment Foundation set out to discover whether the clubs made a genuine difference to academic performance. It commissioned Magic Breakfast to start clubs providing free food for one year in 53 primary schools, and then compared the outcomes for children in years 2 and 6 to those of 53 similar schools.

The clubs opened at least an hour before classes began and offered children a breakfast of porridge, bagels, milk, cereals and fresh fruit juice that they could enjoy with teachers and peers in a relaxed environment. Some also provided games and five minutes of English or maths. The results were evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and presented to the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference this week.

The effect was remarkable. Year 2 pupils, aged seven, made an extra two months’ progress in reading, writing and maths in a single year. Year 6 children made an equivalent leap in English, although the effects were less in science and maths. Classroom behaviour and concentration improved substantially, and pupil absences declined by almost half a day a year.

The fascinating element of the research is that it didn’t require many children to come to the clubs or to start eating breakfast to bring about this degree of change. On average only 22 per cent of children in the experimental schools ate the breakfasts. The proportion eating some food at breakfast time remained very similar, at about 90 per cent. Which means that the impact of the clubs must have come from providing more nutritious food than pupils would otherwise have had, from building better relationships among pupils and between pupils and staff, and from lessening the tension and disruption that’s created for all children in a classroom when a handful of pupils are miserable and short-tempered from hunger.

Many of the children who come to the clubs never eat around tables at home or make conversation over meals

Schools with clubs confirm it’s this combination of filling the gaps in children’s physical, social and emotional needs that is so effective. Pupils who come from homes that are too poor, chaotic or careless to feed them properly can look forward to the pleasure of eating well every morning. Instead of coming straight into a stressful classroom they can talk, play and discuss their lives with their teachers. One school describes its club as a pressure valve, allowing teachers to sort out problems before they turn into emergencies.

It is also an important civilising experience. Many of the children who come to the clubs never eat around tables at home or make conversation over meals. The breakfast rituals build confidence, composure, trust and happiness.

All this is achieved at surprisingly low cost. Magic Breakfast’s sponsors allow it to provide food at 22p per pupil per day. In this experiment, because the proportion who took up the breakfast was low, the total cost spread across all pupils was less than £12 per child per year, in addition to staff time. An average breakfast club costs just £4,000 a year. In comparison to the cost of funding one state school place, at £4,550 per year, this is an extremely cheap way to meet many goals simultaneously: happier, more effective learners, calmer schools, and children who are eating less of the junk food that fuels obesity.

The success of the clubs makes a powerful argument for expanding them across the country. About 85 per cent of schools offer a club of some kind but more than half have to charge to fund themselves. Only a quarter are free for all while some subsidise those pupils who qualify for free school meals.

This is a foolish economy. Making clubs free for all, at this minimal cost, makes them much more likely to be used by those who need them. It removes the stigma often felt by children who qualify for free school meals, and lets poorer but ineligible pupils choose food without anxiety. And that improves the outcomes for all the children in a class, not just those who get fed. It’s in everyone’s interests.

The government has been partially persuaded by this cause. It is putting £26 million into 1,600 new clubs this September, paid for by the sugar tax. That’s welcome, but there are almost 17,000 primary schools in England, and every one has children who would benefit. Steal Labour’s clothes and add a percentage or two to school fees? Extend the sugar tax? However it’s done, this should be just a start.