headteachers in closure-threatened primary schools are keen to sign up to the Assembly government's free breakfast initiative because they see it as having positive marketing benefits, a leading expert claimed this week.
Professor Laurence Moore said some schools that had been asked not to take part in the poverty-busting scheme, but to act instead as control subjects in his research, declined because they felt providing free breakfasts for pupils would strengthen their case for staying open under local authorities school reorganisation plans.
Professor Moore and his team used a cluster randomised controlled trial to examine the delivery of free breakfasts and the impact on pupils' eating habits, concentration and behaviour. Data has been collected from 100 schools since the initiative began in 2005, with the final report due out this autumn.
"In areas with falling rolls, heads were keen to introduce the scheme," said Professor Moore, from the Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Ethics. This cynical take on the well-intentioned scheme emerged as positive findings revealed that breakfasts served in Welsh schools are some of the healthiest in Britain.
So far, pound;10.5m has been spent on the Primary Schools Free Breakfast Initiative, which was introduced by former education minister Jane Davidson. A further pound;20m is to be provided between 200709.
But only half of Wales's 1,615 primary schools have signed up, causing some to brand the scheme a failure. The initiative has been made a key priority by the new LabourPlaid Cymru coalition government in their recently drafted document One Wales.
Professor Moore said one of the recommendations to be made in the final report would be for more funding to encourage take-up of free breakfasts by the most needy children, who often miss out on the most nutritiously important meal of the day. The report will also state that the scheme is popular with middle class working parents, who see breakfast clubs' early start as a chance for free childcare.
"In some schools, there hasn't been a big impact on kids who really are coming from hard-pressed backgrounds, who aren't getting breakfast at all, and have to make their own way to school," explained Professor Moore. "But it is not uniform across the study. In other schools, there may be low take-up, but these may all be children who need the breakfast.
"What you really need is to know about the individual schools and individual families, which is why we want to do additional study, matching pupils' postcodes with other census data, to get more on the individual-specific picture."
Last week Jenny Randerson, Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Cardiff Central, tabled a question in the Senedd asking after the report, following talks with school staff in Monmouthshire. "One of their comments was that the free breakfasts weren't being taken up by those who most needed them," she told TES Cymru. "Their view was that the people using them were working mothers, rather than poorer families."
Ms Randerson also claimed that punctuality was often an issue for socially deprived children. "If they have a problem getting to school on time, they're not likely to be getting to a free school breakfast on time either, are they?" she said.
An Assembly government spokesperson said: "Our local co-ordinators play an important role in addressing the issues particular to these schools. We encourage LEAs and schools to share good practice and ideas for engaging hard to-reach groups. There is a wide range in levels of attendance at schemes and most schools feel they are attracting at least some of the pupils who really need it."
Healthy Breakfast Week will run from October 15-19 this year.
Leading article, page 16
HAMMING IT UP
The free breakfasts on offer in Welsh schools are better than those served up else
where but could be healthier, according to Professor David Benton, Swansea University nutrition expert.
Wales has been praised for not serving the more sugar-coated cereals. But Professor Benton says a German-style breakfast of ham, cheese and wholegrain bread would be healthier than the toast and sugar-free cereals currently on offer.
For one month he presided over breakfasts offered at a primary school in a disadvantaged area of Swansea. He provided three different types of meal, each with a different level of energy release, then filmed the children with hidden cameras.
"On the days they were fed the slow-release breakfast, consisting of ham and eggs, they spent more time on their tasks, had better memory and showed less frustration," Professor Benton said. "Cereal and toast was the meal we found was least beneficial, with fast energy release. But the real message I have is that children should be eating little and often with a mid-morning snack."