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Case study: St David's pupil referral unit, Hereford

I could never eat breakfast before leaving for secondary school each morning. I remember staring at my toast and marmalade listening to Tony Blackburn on Radio One. The nearer the clock ticked towards 7.30, and time for me to catch the bus to my school next to Wormwood Scrubs prison, the more the butterflies in my empty tummy would flutter. Food was the last thing on my mind - and I was happy and relatively successful at school.

No wonder many of my students at St. David's, a key stage 4 pupil referral unit in Hereford, come to school feeling bilious at the sight of a bowl of Rice Krispies. The centre provides both for students who are permanently excluded from high school and those who for a wide range of reasons broadly defined as "medical" are unable to attend mainstream education.

Two years ago my predecessor applied for a lottery-funded grant to finance a breakfast club. Simultaneously we moved into a refurbished centre with a kitchen for the students and a bright airy recreationdining room.

Initially I had hoped that our students would feast on cereals, toast, muffins and freshly squeezed juice. In reality take-up was inconsistent, not perhaps surprising when one considers most of these students are nervous to a degree that I could not have imagined in my youth.

The atmosphere is relaxed; there is no formality or compulsion. That is not our style; the last thing we want is confrontation over cornflakes before first lesson. Appetites seem to develop during the first hour or two and by mid-morning there are more takers as breakfast gives way to brunch at morning break. With several students on part-time hours starting at lunchtime, we effectively now offer all-day breakfasts.

Staff have made one important observation. Where students are left to their own devices, which in the interests of independence I prefer them to be, the number eating is limited to a handful of "foodies". When the staff take the initiative, make the tea and toast and cut up the fruit before serving, the number who eat increases considerably. Lazy teenagers? Perhaps. But it could be that there is another factor at work: the human touch.

We haven't employed anyone specifically to make and serve breakfasts. It is more ad hoc, with teaching staff and assistants mucking in. There is something humbling about staff "serving" in this way, then teaching a maths lesson immediately afterwards or supporting the same student they've just shared breakfast with in an English lesson.

One other positive development has been the opportunity that shopping for breakfast has provided for individual students, some of whom lack the confidence to do so without support and who gain enormously from their visit to the local supermarket.

The year of funding afforded us the opportunity to provide food free of charge throughout the day. We have continued to do so from our own resources this year, but next year's budget is not as healthy.

Has the availability of breakfast and brunch made a difference to the performance of our young people? I'm not sure, but what I do see every day is evidence of the benefits that accrue from offering food served with a smile. I believe pupil referral units are about developing good relationships between young people and the adults who work there. Many of our students have difficulty building such relationships, and what better way to help them than through the sharing of food.

Steve Thompson is head of St David's, a key stage 4 pupil referral unit in Hereford

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