Almost since the inception of state education in the UK it has been recognised that food is crucial to children's schooling. As early as 1906, Bradford educationists were producing evidence that children denied at least one good meal a day were unable to learn, no matter how often they chanted their times tables. This research eventually led to the introduction of compulsory school lunches and free milk for all children under the age of 18. Over the years, these rights were eroded - most notoriously when free milk was abolished by the then education secretary Margaret Thatcher in 1971 - and by the Nineties the lessons of that early research had been largely forgotten, despite reports of many modern inner-city children showing signs of malnutrition. As the Labour government began its campaign to drive up standards, schools began to realise that, even with the best teachers, they couldn't keep improving unless the physical and emotional well-being of pupils was catered for. And there was nothing better to set them up for the day than breakfast.
Why should schools offer breakfast?
Although there has never been any definitive research on the national breakfast habits of children, Jenna Hall of ContinYou, the national community charity that aims to tackle inequality through learning, says local surveys have shown that as many as 60 per cent of children arrive at school having had either no breakfast at all, or just a bag of crisps or a chocolate bar.
"This is a very high figure based on the response of individual schools in deprived areas. We work on the assumption that the national figure is probably closer to 20 per cent of children," says Ms Hall, who co-ordinates ContinYou's Breakfast Club Plus, which offers free resources, support and advice for schools. The value of a proper breakfast lies not just in the nutrients it contains, but in the day-long boost it gives to a child's metabolism, while research shows that those who skip breakfast will probably not be able to make up the loss of the nutrients found in a bowl of wholegrain cereal with milk.
What's on the menu?
Most schools offer a standard breakfast of tea, fruit juice or milk, cereal, toast and toppings, fruit and yoghurt. Food hygiene regulations mean few can offer hot meals, but those clubs, particularly in secondary schools, which are run by the local authority's catering supplier, often offer bacon or sausage sandwiches or egg.
But Ms Hall warns that it is not just a case of giving children a nutritious breakfast and expecting the benefits to flow. "It is about the added value that breakfast clubs bring in terms of out-of-school learning activities. The focus in clubs is not on the curricular, but on child-led activities, whether it's play, sport or learning support. It is these that benefit the children personally and pastorally."
Can tea and toast really make a difference?
"Food is a basic need of life. If children are coming into school hungry then we cannot expect them to learn," says Callum Kidd, head of Carr Hill primary in Gateshead. One of the first things Mr Kidd did when he took over the 320-pupil school in 1999 was to set up a breakfast club, which is now attended by up to 150 pupils a day.
"This is a school that was in special measures, with more than 75 per cent of children entitled to free school meals. Attendance was low, punctuality was poor. Before you can set about improving standards, these things have to be tackled. A breakfast club brings children into school at 8 o'clock.
They can eat and, just as importantly, socialise, and be in class ready to learn by 8.50."
And the figures speak for themselves. Attendance at Carr Hill has risen from 83 per cent in 2000 to 94 per cent today; not only has the school been long out of special measures, but it received outstanding praise from Ofsted inspectors in July and will be cited for excellence in the chief inspector's annual report, due to be published in October.
So is breakfast the magic bullet?
"Obviously, the breakfast club is only one part of our success, but it has helped to create an ethos that children respond to," says Mr Kidd. "They now want to be in school because it offers a quality experience. And it has also changed the perception in the community. All the breakfast club helpers have been parent volunteers, most of whom would never have considered coming into school before."
Margaret Beesley, head of Hugh Gaitskell primary in Leeds, which is home to a thriving breakfast club for 120 pupils, agrees there is more to morning meals than the food. "They socialise with children who are in different years and enjoy interacting with staff in a way they wouldn't necessarily do in the classroom. It creates a closer community."
Most schools cite happy, well-fed children and social interaction as the main benefits of breakfast clubs. But others have more direct curricular intent and offer study along with the cereals.
At St Ivo school in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, all Year 7 pupils are invited to join Books over Breakfast, a twice-weekly club that serves comics and magazines with the muesli and where sixth-formers help their younger schoolmates with reading.
"Not only do the Year 7s get extra help with their reading, but the scheme plugs into the sixth-form's community service and the volunteers are given training," says Helen Tedford, who runs the scheme. "It's all very informal and although we do target those children we think need extra help, it is open to everyone, whatever their reading ability."
Is there room for continental breakfasts?
At Benfield school in Newcastle, you'll find zumo de naranja and tostada on the menu as teacher Gayle Jobson takes Year 9 pupils for extracurricular Spanish lessons over breakfast three mornings a week. The club is funded by the school's gifted and talented budget and is designed to take pupils through to a GCSE in Year 10, without any other formal lessons in the language.
"The students have formed a camaraderie that has helped them to study hard, but in a fun atmosphere," says Ms Jobson. "They leave here awake and ready to learn more." The school is now planning a Russian breakfast.
Who's funding it?
In 1999, encouraged by the success of breakfast clubs in the United States, the Department of Health launched a pilot scheme to fund the expansion of clubs in schools serving England's most needy pupils. Previously, schools had scraped together cash from whatever source they could, and for the most part this patchwork of funding continues; education and health authorities, government regeneration bodies, businesses and charities all contribute.
The most ambitious plan is the Welsh Assembly's pledge to provide all 274,000 primary schoolchildren with a free breakfast by September 2007, a plan that was included in the Welsh Labour party's 2003 election manifesto.
Opponents have dismissed it as a gimmick based on assumptions that take-up rates would be low and, because it would not be compulsory, claimed it was never intended to feed every child. Costs have risen from the original estimate of pound;16 million a year to pound;40 million, a figure said to be based on 30p a breakfast, causing one Conservative politician to remark:
"At 30p a head we are more likely to see ministers with egg on their faces than children with egg on their plates." In fact, according to the latest figures, the cost is now down to 25p per child a day.
The teachers' union NASUWT Cymru has said that breakfast is the responsibility of parents and that the money would be better spent on hiring more teachers.
Eighty schools in 12 local authorities covering the most deprived areas in Wales are currently serving breakfasts, but all 22 authorities are expected to have some schools involved by Christmas. As more schools join the scheme, Cardiff University is researching the effect that free breakfasts have on families, schools and LEA budgets.
Any other major schemes?
In 2003, Glasgow city council and the local NHS board launched Big Breakfasts, a programme offering free breakfasts for the city's 42,000 primary schoolchildren. Glasgow currently serves 7,000 meals a day on a budget of pound;2.4 million a year. "We are trying to capture those who would benefit the most and at the moment we know the take-up is highest in the most socially deprived areas," says Sharon Carton, the project co-ordinator.
The clubs, which also offer a range of activities and commercial promotions, such as free cinema and concert tickets, are independent of the city's 184 primary schools and are run by the council's catering service.
Schools taking part in the early pilot scheme reported improved behaviour and concentration, and better time-keeping and attendance.
Many councils south of the border support breakfast club initiatives, and some employ co-ordinators to help with liaison and best practice, but there is nothing on the scale of the Glasgow scheme. In 2002, Newham council in east London set up a limited company, the Early Start Breakfast Clubs, covering five primary schools, to manage breakfast clubs. The consortium paid staff and food costs with money from the New Opportunity Fund and the Children's Fund, but the initiative collapsed earlier this year.
In a report into the demise of Early Start, the council blamed the "plethora of other initiatives which undermined the project's sustainability, undercut the price and confused the process". These other initiatives included Healthy Schools, food access projects and other funding streams, such as the single regeneration budget and neighbourhood renewal fund.
How does business help?
Carr Hill and Hugh Gaitskell schools are among a growing number of school that rely on philanthropic businesses. They are part of a nationwide scheme run by Greggs, a high street bakery, which added the 100th school to its list in June. Under the scheme, Greggs donates bread and money for other food to schools in the most deprived areas of the country. It also provides cash to buy kitchen utensils such as toasters and kettles, hygiene training for the adults and advice on how to run a club. To qualify, clubs must be free, be run by volunteers, target children who would most benefit and be promoted by the head. Initially, each is guaranteed funding for two years, but none has yet been discontinued.
"Greggs are the guardian angels of bread," says Margaret Beesley. "They are such a wonderful company to work with. Their staff can't do enough for us, and regularly visit to have breakfast with the children." Callum Kidd adds:
"They are fantastic. There is no way we could afford to give the children free breakfasts without their help."
Sir Mike Darrington, managing director of Greggs, is under no doubt as to the value of the scheme. "I have always believed that we should put something back. We spent time searching for the right project, looking at such things as mentoring in secondary schools, but once I saw my first breakfast club, I knew that was it." To ensure he was putting his company's money to its best use, Sir Mike has twice commissioned Durham University's business school to research the benefits of breakfast clubs. "We now have the hard evidence that they have a positive effect on schools; they even get better Ofsted reports than they did previously," he says.
Are there other business angels?
Many schools in the Nottingham area enjoy the largesse of firms linked to the local Business in the Community scheme. Through the Care for Kids Breakfast Clubs initiative, companies such as credit card issuer Capital One, credit reference agency Experian and retailer Wilkinson joined up with the city council to provide funding and support. Berridge junior school, which is in the deprived Hyson Green area of the city, has formed strong links with the bingo operator Gala. It began when the company's employees volunteered to come into the school to listen to children read, and has since developed into dedicated sponsorship of the breakfast club, which was set up last November. The 30 children pay 50p per breakfast, which covers the staffing costs; the rest - pound;1.50 a week per child, or just under pound;2,000 a year - comes from Gala.
"We value their support," says headteacher Brian Mallow. "Staffing the club voluntarily was just not on as the staff deserve to be paid, especially as we have extended a teaching assistant's hours to help with curricular links as part of the club's activities."
Do breakfast clubs have a future?
With the Government pushing the extended school initiative, they are likely to become more common. "There is nothing else which creates such a wealth of benefits to children," says Jenna Hall of ContinYou. "Breakfast clubs increase confidence, self-esteem, punctuality and attendance, and reduce bullying. These outcomes, combined with ensuring the young people have an appropriate breakfast, really help to boost their concentration and therefore their performance in the classroom.
"However many more teachers you could employ, they would not be able to engage their pupils so effectively. In our research, teachers have said that a breakfast club has given them back 30 minutes of teaching time a day. Multiplied over a year that is a tremendous impact."
And what of those breaking their fast?
If the proof of the breakfast is in the eating, eight-year-old Leyla Azizican, of Carr Hill primary, can confirm its special place in her school. "When I was in my other school it didn't have a breakfast club so me and my brother didn't get to school until five to nine in the morning.
Now in Carr Hill we get there at 8.15am so that we can have breakfast with our friends. It just feels good to have something made for you at school before lessons start. I think it helps settle children down ready for their work."
DID YOU KNOW?
* As many as 60 per cent of children arrive at school having had either no breakfast at all, or just a bag of crisps or a chocolate bar
* A proper breakfast, such as wheatgrain cereal with milk, gives a day-long boost to children's metabolism. If they skip breakfast, it's hard to make up the loss of nutrients in the course of a day
* Schools taking part in pilot schemes have reported improved behaviour and concentration levels, better time-keeping and attendance
* Social interaction as well as play, sport and learning activities represent the 'added value' of breakfast clubs
* Some schools in deprived areas report up to 50 per cent of pupils attending their breakfast clubs
* In Glasgow, 7,000 breakfasts a day are provided by the city at a cost of pound;2.4 million a year