What's the best way to start the day: with an empty stomach; with a packet of crisps and a can of cola; or with cereal, milk and fresh fruit surrounded by friends and teachers? David Newnham finds out
It's not yet 8am and already a dozen or more children in the out-of-school club are tucking into breakfast around a big wooden table. Although we are on school premises, there is a family feel to the gathering, and the atmosphere is relaxed as they splash milk on to their cereal and add strawberries.
But one lad has something on his mind. Today is sports day but he's left his kit at home. In the normal run of things, he would have to endure an entire morning of lessons in a state of mounting panic as the moment of truth - kick-off at 2pm - approached. But there is a less stressful alternative. Miss Foster, his PE teacher, has also dropped in for breakfast. And so in this family atmosphere, over buttered muffins and fresh fruit smoothies, he confides in her.
"Don't worry," she tells him. "After we've finished breakfast, we'll sort you out some spare kit." No big deal. Problem sorted. Panic over.
If anyone needed reminding that there is more to a school breakfast club than food, then this story would surely prove the point. But at Earlham high, a comprehensive serving several estates on the outskirts of Norwich, nobody needs reminding.
Earlham High is Norfolk's first full-service extended school, and for the past two years has been dishing up healthy, filling breakfasts every morning to as many pupils as wish to have them. It is often 7.30am when the first takers arrive; an hour later the room is buzzing, with a full-size pool table, air hockey and a dance mat helping to keep 20 or so well-fed children entertained before the school day begins.
Having pupils on board from the word go has proved to be one of the additional returns on a good, nutritious meal. "There's enough research out there to show that if a child gets a proper, decent breakfast, the start to their day is good," says head Dr Tyrone Castles. "We've seen our GCSE exam results improve, and we've seen the difference in behaviour in class."
ContinYou, a charity that runs a national breakfast club award scheme in partnership with Kellogg's, was selected by the Department of Health to manage the Food in Schools Healthier Breakfast Club project in 2003-04. For a number of years, it has been promoting and advising clubs and measuring their impact on children's health and achievement. In 2004, it set up an online support network called Breakfast Club Plus, and in a recent survey of its 80 current members, schools said that the main benefits of breakfast clubs were providing an opportunity to eat at the beginning of the day, improving punctuality, providing a space for children and helping them to concentrate.
But it does not end there. As Holly, one of the sixth-formers and ex-pupils currently gaining work experience at the Earlham High breakfast club, whirrs the smoothie machine in the small kitchen area, Dr Castles points to a Year 9 and a Year 7 pupil playing pool together. "A lot of the social skills that some of our children don't have - such as good manners, conversation and sharing - are being taught at the breakfast club," he says.
While nutritionists recommend that breakfast should make up a quarter of our daily nutrient intake, studies suggest that one in four UK children eats chocolate and crisps for breakfast, washed down with fizzy drink. And the Office for National Statistics tells us that one in five - that's three million children each day - has no breakfast at all.
Research has shown that children who leave the house with an empty stomach are more likely to snack on calorie-dense products later in the day, and to become obese. According to a 2001 doctor-patient partnership survey, British children spend pound;500 million every year on snacks to eat on their way to school. It might help to keep local shops in business, but does nothing for their long-term health or their short-term behaviour.
Breakfast clubs have proved to be one way of countering this trend. And as at Earlham High, where teachers can be present on an informal basis and other staff are on hand to give professional or health advice, or simply to listen to problems, the club offers an effective environment for enriching and extending the curriculum and helping to tackle issues of social exclusion and under-achievement.
Far from resenting the involvement of outside agencies in what has traditionally been considered an integral aspect of family life, 82 per cent of parents in one survey said that they considered school breakfast clubs to be a good way for working parents to ensure that their children get a good meal in a safe environment at the start of every day.
For now, the Earlham club is partly financed by the Big Lottery Fund, with the school contributing around pound;2,800 a year. Children are charged 50p for each breakfast, but the school picks up the tab for children whose parents cannot afford to pay.
Rosemary Linley, extended school co-ordinator at Earlham, points out that many of their children have disrupted home lives. "Therefore it's important that they feel valued and can build positive relationships here, and that we try to create an extended family atmosphere."
A lot of childcare of this type, she says, tends to be for under-eights, and indeed she is currently helping 10 feeder schools in Norwich to set up similar clubs of their own. "But what we are doing here is for secondary school students. Many people seem to believe that teenagers don't need childcare. But we feel that they do."
The charity ContinYou, which runs the online Breakfast Club Plus support service, offers several pages of guidance, with information packs, FAQs and lists of tips. Various types of club are discussed in terms of healthy eating issues, primarysecondaryspecial school considerations, and practicalities. There is also valuable information on inspections and regulations, nutrition and health, evaluation, and ways to link your club with the curriculum. For details, visit www.continyou.org.uk and navigate to Breakfast Club Plus in the list of programmes.