'Free breakfast for disadvantaged children would be better than universal free school meals'

The educational benefits of a good breakfast for children are clear. The government and schools should do more to ensure that every child has one, writes one leading educationist

John Dunford

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In most schools, a majority of lessons take place in the morning, so there is at least as much educational benefit in having a good breakfast as a good midday meal.

It is impossible to learn on an empty stomach. Concentration wanes, with hunger and tiredness taking over as the morning progresses.

In the early 2000s, when shiny New Labour was announcing a new education policy a week – or so it seemed at the time – I remember saying: “A good breakfast for poor children would be as effective as a dozen of these school improvement policies.”

That is why so many schools use the pupil premium to provide free breakfasts for eligible children.

Now Labour wants to extend universal free school midday meals to all primary school-age children. While this has the benefit that many more poor children, in addition to those on free school meals, will get a better meal at lunchtime, it means that a lot of money will be spent providing a midday meal for other children whose families can afford it.

It also does nothing to help those who get little or no breakfast.

If VAT is to be levied on private schools and used for the benefit of families struggling financially – including Theresa May’s "just about managing" families (JAMs) – there are three things that should be done.

First, extend the number of children eligible for free school meals, who would not only then get a good meal at lunchtime, but would also be eligible for the pupil premium.

Too many children of financially poor families are missing out, because of the limitations placed on those eligible for free school meals.

Eligibility criteria are currently:

  • Income support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under part vi of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for four weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

Fewer children get free school meals

Cutbacks to benefits have reduced the number of children eligible for free school meals.

In particular, the children of poorly paid and part-time workers are not having a free school meal. According to the Department for Education’s own figures, the proportion of children eligible for, and claiming, free school meals has decreased from 17.4 per cent in 2010 to 15.1 per cent in 2016.

The greatest fall in the take-up of free school meals has been in primary schools, where the policy of universal free school meals for younger children has adversely affected registration levels at age 7.

So my second proposal is the introduction of automatic registration for free school meals, as advocated by the NAHT headteachers' union. Then children from the poorest families would no longer be missing out on a midday meal from age 7 onwards.

Third, let’s give more children a free breakfast.

Apart from the anecdotal evidence of teachers like me who saw the effects of hunger on children’s work and concentration levels, especially in the second half of the morning, there is good evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that breakfast clubs in primary schools can boost reading, writing and maths results by the equivalent of two months’ progress over the course of a year.

The EEF pilot project took place in 106 English primary schools with higher than average numbers of disadvantaged pupils, and was delivered to 8,600 pupils by the charity Magic Breakfast.

The pilot was evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Children’s Bureau, which compared the academic performance of Year 2 children in schools with a breakfast club with a similar group whose schools were not part of Magic Breakfast scheme. The evaluators reported that the pupils’ concentration and behaviour improved, too.

Of the many schools that use pupil premium to provide free breakfast, some invite parents in to join their child for a free breakfast, too.

This innovative way to open up the school to often hard-to-reach parents provides a golden opportunity to engage these adults in the work of the school and, in particular, with their children’s progress.

A few minutes’ informal discussion with a teacher can make a great deal of difference to the home/school relationship and the interest that the parent takes in the child’s school work.

The education benefits to children of a good breakfast are clear. The government and schools should both do more to ensure that every child has one. 

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016.

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back catalogue.

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