A crust above

Good breakfasts can be the key to getting pupils healthy, full of energy and ready to learn. Yet a quarter of children in the UK go to school hungry. Meabh Ritchie reports on how clubs are providing the most important meal of the day

Meabh Ritchie

Pupils at Kingsmead Primary School in east London are fans of "ding" food. This isn't some new snack on the market, targeted at young people: it's food cooked in a microwave, that goes "ding" when it's ready.

Pupils' school lunches are often remnants of chicken and chips in takeaway boxes and are accompanied with a note asking if it can be heated up in the microwave. "If there was an emblem for this bit of Hackney, it would be a red and yellow box of fried chicken and chips," says Louise Nichols, headteacher of the primary school, which caters for 240 pupils. Most of the pupils live on the nearby Kingsmead Estate, where the only food outlets are a grocery shop and a fried chicken shop.

Jamie Oliver's school dinner revolution has made a difference to the school's lunches, but such is the impact of poor nutrition on their pupils' behaviour and ability to learn, the school also started a free, pre-school breakfast club in 2005. It opens at 8am and serves cereals, porridge, beans on toast, bagels and juice.

At first, 10-year-old Abira didn't attend, preferring to have a bit more time in front of the TV, "but now I come most days," she says. "Sometimes Mum has to leave me at school early anyway, and if you go to breakfast club you get to play football before lessons start." She usually has beans on toast, a firm favourite among most of the kids, but at weekends, it's cookies for breakfast.

Although many teachers view them as an essential service, without which their pupils' learning would be compromised, breakfast clubs aren't seen as a priority by the Government and many schools rely on outside corporations who have a charitable interest to provide food. Government funding should reach breakfast clubs through the allocated extended schools funding, but how much of this money gets through specifically to breakfast clubs depends on how committed local authorities are to establishing an effective set-up throughout their borough.

The idea of serving breakfast in schools first arose as part of New Labour's pre-election drive towards extended schools in 1995. Initially poorer areas were targeted, where family poverty is an obvious factor in behaviour and attainment in school. Breakfast clubs were seen as a way of providing an additional free school meal to pupils on top of their lunch, while helping them learn and concentrate right from the start of the school day.

Children at Kingsmead Primary School come from an area that is in the top 4 per cent most deprived in the country. Fifty-nine per cent of the pupils receive free school meals and teachers suspect that a proportion of the pupils' families aren't accessing all the benefits available, and many other social and health services. A high percentage of the school's population is also from the traveller community, many of whom tend not to be in contact with doctors or social services and are also more likely to live in high levels of poverty.

Programmes such as Sure Start and Healthy Start are already in place to channel money from the Government directly into the hands of parents who need it most. But supporters of breakfast clubs argue that schools are better placed to reach vulnerable children directly.

Kingsmead has taken on the challenge of filling in the gaps in their pupils' all-round care left by health and social services, and the breakfast club is part of this ethos. "Most families are reasonably well functioning and they can get their children to school in a state that they need to be in - warm, well-fed and ready to learn," says Louise Nichols. "In areas like this, where it isn't necessarily a given that children arrive like that, this is the sort of thing that makes a difference."

The school has undergone a huge turnaround in recent years and is now oversubscribed. Despite starting school at educational and behavioural levels well below the national average, pupils leave the school with above average levels of attainment. Ms Nichols puts the significant levels of change down to her team's commitment to catering for the whole child and not just the league tables. The breakfast club is part of this culture: children at the nursery school are given lessons in dental hygiene; pupils who don't have washing facilities at home are able to shower at school; those who have never used cutlery are shown how to eat with a knife and fork.

"The Government is still trying to figure out why in the same catchment area, some (schools) do well, and some don't," says Ms Nichols. "I think it's about looking at the whole child - it's common sense for most people. You can't only focus on the academic results as it just won't happen without everything else." The breakfast club, which is free and open to parents as well as pupils, is integral to enabling the school to nurture the whole child and follow the Every Child Matters agenda.

No concrete research has been carried out into the benefits of breakfast specifically, and the number of variables make it difficult to measure. But Dr Susan Jebb, NHS adviser on nutrition, says that children who eat breakfast are more likely to have a better diet overall. "They tend to have less fat in their diets and more micro nutrients, like iron and calcium," she says. "Breakfast is a healthy meal - more healthy than what people would eat later on in the day if they were still hungry. Snacks tend to be high in fat and sugar."

Anecdotally there is plenty of evidence about the impact of breakfast on pupils. Margo McDavid, a class teacher at Winton Primary in north London has noticed a huge difference. "Children, if they miss their breakfast, get very emotional. They get upset and cry," she says. "The second biggest difference is that they're able to concentrate on their lessons and they learn a lot more. The third thing is the difference in the playground: their behaviour is much better - they're a lot calmer."

Carmel McConnell, activist and corporate consultant, is campaigning for free school breakfasts to become as much of an entitlement as free school lunches. She set up the charity Magic Breakfast in 2000 and has garnered a lot of corporate interest in the cause. PepsiCo (the company that produces Quaker oats and Tropicana orange juice) and The Bagel Company both supply the charity with food at minimal cost and 62 schools so far are involved.

"There is not enough noise being made about the benefits of making sure children get a healthy meal at the start of a school day," says Ms McConnell, who has re-mortgaged her house three times to fund the charity's work. "At the moment, it takes an enlightened person in an LA to say, `I'm going to prioritise this'."

Lewisham is one of the few boroughs in London to offer a strategic breakfast club service. Christine Bull, childcare, play and recreation manager at Lewisham Council, oversees breakfast and after-school club services for primary and secondary schools. She says the original end-goal of improving children's education has expanded. "It's now progressed to wrap-around care for working parents," says Ms Bull. "This week alone, I've had two phone calls from parents who want to leave their children at school at 7.30am."

Breakfast clubs have also broadened their remit to include activities such as homework and reading support. At the Cateau Primary School in Catterick Garrison, where 85 per cent of the pupils have one or both parents in the military, pupils are given help to contact their parents serving in Iraq or Afghanistan over breakfast.

Providing the service is an additional cost, Lewisham Council, among others, isn't willing to fork out for breakfast if parents can afford it and would pay for childcare otherwise. Schools decide whether to subsidise the clubs or not, but schools will usually pay for pupils who can't afford it. The average cost for a breakfast club place in Lewisham is pound;2.50 a day, which is "quite good value," says Ms Bull, "for an hour of childcare and a breakfast."

Many working parents would be glad to pay for the option of leaving their children at school for breakfast. However, the primary objective for breakfast clubs, and the reason their supporters are so determined, is that they can reach pupils who will go hungry without it and in many cases, it can be the defining factor in pupils' achievements later in life.

"It's completely outrageous that we're even needed," says Ms McConnell. "You shouldn't need to have a charity like ours providing breakfasts. The school should be able to have the right funding and the budget to be able to do it itself. Right now, that's what we're working towards." The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that around a quarter of children in the UK are going to school hungry.

Teachers will never be able to control what pupils eat outside school, and even parents can't always monitor what their children eat outside of the house. But children form life-long eating habits from what they are given to eat and those who attend a breakfast club are learning valuable habits as well as increasing their chances for educational achievement later in life. Perhaps healthy breakfasts need a Jamie Oliver figure to spearhead the campaign to get government funding for nationwide breakfast clubs, or even to encourage more businesses to team up with schools directly.

In the meantime, charities such as Magic Breakfast are leading the way. "Our goal is to make sure we expand, work as social enterprise and create our own funding," says Ms McConnell, "so that every child gets the right fuel for learning."

Something to digest

  • 84 per cent of people in UK eat cereal for breakfast.
  • pound;646 million a year is spent by school children on junk food before school.
  • 34 per cent of children have a say over what their parents buy for breakfast (2008).

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Meabh Ritchie

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