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Jam today

Breakfast clubs ensure that pupils don't start their school day on empty stomachs but, as Reva Klein reports, they can offer children much more than a bowl of cornflakes.

Next time you get the chance, pop into a newsagents at 8.15 on a weekday morning. Don't do it on an empty stomach, though, it's not a pretty sight. What you'll see is kids buying their "breakfast" and pushing it down their hungry throats as they walk to school. But this is not breakfast as you or I know it. It's crisps. Chocolate. Coke. No wonder they literally bounce into school first thing - a glucose rush is a mighty thing. So, too, is the trough that follows the peak, hitting them at around 10.30am or 11am, when the happy, hyper creatures of the first period become all droopy or bad-tempered or, if you're really unlucky, an unlovely combination of both.

And those are the ones who have something in their bellies. According to research featured in a recent report from independent research organisation the New Policy Institute, Food for thought: breakfast clubs and their challenges, almost one in 10 children comes to school without having eaten anything since the night before.

Health professionals recommend that breakfast provides 25 per cent of daily nutritional requirements - it is an important meal, especially for growing children. Which is why breakfast clubs are popping up all over the place. Concern about empty stomachs in the morning and their affect on children's health and ability to learn has led to a proliferation of clubs, amounting to an estimated seven-fold increase in the past few years.

There are many kinds of early morning sessions that call themselves breakfast clubs. Some are stretching the point a bit because, while they look after children, there's not so much as a crumb of toast in sight. The majority do provide food, though, with or without a focus on promoting healthy eating. Many offer learning support as part of the package, often with access to computers. Most use school premises and are open only in term time. They tend to run an hour before the school day begins and are used by an average of a dozen children on any given day paying 30 to 50 pence each . They are run by school staff, who are paid extra for it. Some have the added benefit of being helped by older children from nearby secondary schools, who may get paid by the session.

The New Policy Institute estimates that between 18,000 and 27,000 children attend between 400 and 600 breakfast clubs every day. While these numbers represent a big increase on previous years, they amount to a paltry 0.5 per cent of the primary school population.

And the number of secondary schools running this type of service is even smaller. As everyone who has anything to do with secondary school aged children knows, it's difficult to lure them into school earlier than they need to be there. They'd rather be sleeping or hanging around on neutral territory - a cafe, the park - than school. And under pressure to demonstrate to the world how cool and macho they are, they know that attending a breakfast club, frankly, does nothing for their image.

One school that has taken up the challenge and seems to have found a winning formula is Sutton high school in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, which has been running a club twice a week for the past two years. According to a survey, almost half the children in the area miss breakfast in the morning. Judging by the 25 Year 7 and 8 children turning up at 7.45am on the coldest, wettest, darkest of January mornings, they're hungry for something more than egg on toast.

Take Michael, an 11-year-old with special needs. The dark circles under his eyes may have more than a little to do with having stayed up until 3am the night before watching The Exorcist, a fact he proclaims proudly as he starts shovelling in the cornflakes. He's the first to arrive. "My mum goes to work early and I don't get breakfast when I don't come here. I'll stop in the shop and buy Maltesers and a fizzy drink. But I feel better when I come here. I eat something, meet friends, play with Lego. When there's no breakfast club I come early and talk to the cleaners."

Other children offer variations on the same theme - coming here and being with friends is more fun than hanging around a house where parents have either gone to work or are still in bed. Michelle, 12, likes it because she can get help with her homework.

"We've had a lot of success with reluctant attenders," says headteacher Nick Beattie. "The breakfast club's turned them around by being a welcoming place that makes them feel part of the school. It's also one of the strategies we use for helping young people with learning difficulties. A good many who come have trouble with reading. So they bring their homework with them and get the help they need."

They also get positive affirmation and a dose of social skills (including basic table manners) from the two staff from the learning support department and a rota of sixth-formers who work at the club in pairs. Other staff members drop in for a cup of tea and a chat with the children when they have the time. The experience of just sitting around a table and having a conversation with adults and other children is a valuable - and novel - one for some of the clubbers.

So, too, is the democratic voice they're given within the club. The children hold elections every year for the breakfast club committee. Job descriptions are circulated as are voting forms. The children elected on to the committee wear badges and assume specific roles, ranging from chair to treasurer to secretary (which involves taking minutes at termly meetings). It's through the committee that a token system was devised to ensure that all children attending the club received equal portions of breakfast, instead of some people gobbling up more than their share and others being left short.

In a school where half the Year 7s have achieved level 3 or below in English, set in an area where the normal wage is one third of the national average and where adult illiteracy is rife, taking on the role of committee member carries particular significance. Many of these kids come from families demoralised and disenfranchised by long-term unemployment. Having the opportunity to make decisions and take responsibility for their decisions can give them a sense of self-esteem that has eluded them so far.

Literacy co-ordinator Lisa Simpson set the club up as a component in the curriculum extension and wraparound service the school has developed, which includes an array of lunchtime and after-school enrichment activities. It runs on Department of the Environment funding, with added money for books and resources from Education Extra and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. "These kids don't have many opportunities outside school," says Ms Simpson. The breakfast club is one strategy - a particularly well-planned, carefully organised one - to attempt to redress the balance.

Sutton high school is a model for the majority of secondary schools which see the need but don't believe it can work. Far thicker on the ground are primary schools that are making it work. Take Millfields primary in the London borough of Hackney. East London is a world away from Ellesmere Port, but the levels of deprivation are depressingly similar, and Millfields' ebullient headteacher, Anna Hassan, has her job cut out. With 73 per cent of her pupils on free school meals, Millfields is one of the poorest schools in the country. Three quarters of the children have English as a second language.

Ms Hassan is totally committed to enriching children's lives by giving them the support, nurturing and, of course, nourishment they need. Next to the tables where children sit and eat are games and puzzles, and support staff for play and talk. Most children head for the computer room or the library once they've had their breakfast, either playing educational computer games or getting help with their homework. To help them are school staff and a couple of volunteer pupils from Clapton Girls' School down the road. Governors drop in when they can to help and chat, and so do parents.

Anna Hassan is supported by governors who've decided to prioritise initiatives like the breakfast club and an after-school computer club. In their first year, the clubs received a pound;5,000 grant from the NSPCC. At the moment, there's no outside funding, but an application is being made to the Breakfast Club Award Scheme (see box).

The need is enormous. "We set the club up to support all children, but we target needy families," says Ms Hassan. "Some parents can hardly drag themselves out of bed to bring their children here, and need help. I know of at least 50 children who don't come to breakfast club and get nothing to eat at home."

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