There are a group of education researchers that have discovered recently the most cost-effective way of drastically improving kids’ performances at school. It’s not more homework, or different teaching methods… it’s simple. Provide a free school breakfast club. I always find it difficult to focus in the mornings at work unless I have had breakfast. My brain doesn’t switch on properly as my body isn’t being fueled by anything. Too many kids are starting school hungry. There is a charity called Magic Breakfast, that works with many schools, that puts that number to a staggering half a million. The Food Standards Agency declares that nearly one in ten households can’t afford to eat healthily or regularly. Which is absolutely shocking. Apparently a fifth of all children in the country eat sweets, crisps or Coke for breakfast.
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.
Proof is in the pudding
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
Warm up for the day ahead
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.
Cost is minimal
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.
Making clubs free for everyone, at this small cost, makes them so much more likely to be used by those who really need them the most. It removes that stigma that is often felt by children who qualify for free school meals and lets the poorer but ineligable pupils choose food without anxiety. It also improves the outcomes for ALL the children in a class, not just those who get fed, it’s simple really. What’s your opinion on this idea? Get in touch through the contact page.