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Toast of the town

Most schools want to make sure their pupils eat a healthy lunch, but one inner-city primary in Stoke-on-Trent has taken that concern a step further. Abbey Hulton primary school is in one of the most deprived areas of the city. Seventy per cent of the children receive free school meals and teachers there realised that many children were not eating properly between leaving school at 3.30pm and returning in the morning.

So the school decided to set up one of the first Breakfast Clubs in the country. "It all started as part of a healthy eating project," said teacher Samantha Hurst. "We wanted to do something practical in school and we knew that many of the children weren't getting a good breakfast."

The staff and food are provided by Staffordshire County Council catering service. Instrumental in getting the scheme off the ground was the head cook at the school, Hazell Messham. "We offer them several types of cereal, toast, flapjacks and milk," she said.

"It's been popular right from the start. It's a chance for the children to get together with friends before school starts, and it's become something of a social occasion," she said.

Each child pays 20p for the breakfast. The rest of the cost is absorbed into the overall school meals service. "It's a non-profit making venture,'' said Staffordshire's principal education officer, Vincent McDonnell.

"The staff cost is paid for by the county catering service and any additional costs would be absorbed by the overall school meals budget. That is subsidised by the county council because of the number of children receiving free schools meals and so it's a tangible way we can help children in a deprived area such as Abbey Hulton.

"Under local management of schools, it's much harder for authorities to push funds towards schools like Abbey Hulton," he said. Every morning from 8. 30, the children line up to get their cereal or toast. It's a lively, friendly occasion, with a roar of chat only going quiet as the children wipe plates clean.

"When we first started the scheme about 80 children came along," said Samantha Hurst. "That's levelled off now to about 40 regulars, so the uptake is still pretty good.

"Children don't sit down to meals with their parents the way they used to,'' she said." The pressure on families is much greater now with often both parents working, and giving a child a decent breakfast can be an impossible task. " She says the scheme also has an educational benefit. "Research by Exeter University has shown that children's concentration is much greater if they've eaten a good meal," she said. "It makes sense - if you don't put petrol in your car in the morning, it simply won't go. Certainly I've noticed that in my class the children who've been to the Breakfast Club do seem to concentrate better.

"Many teachers are worried about the level of nutrition children are getting, " she said. "Here our children are well below the national average for height and weight. I think they are getting a teatime meal, but more often than not it's in front of the television and the quality is questionable."

She says the club has also had a civilising effect on the children. "When some of them start school at the age of five, it's the first time they've held a knife or fork. So it's partly a social exercise - they're learning to sit down, eat properly and talk rather than shout to each other."

The club has also helped to reduce the number of late attendances. Now the children have a reason to get to school on time. "I think it's great," said a pupil. "I like the food and it's a chance to have a chat with my friends. I didn't get much breakfast at home."

Overall, teachers at the school said the club serves a number of purposes. "It gives the children a good meal; they learn the basics of table manners, and we benefit in the classroom because they're less fidgety," said Samantha Hurst.

Since the club began last spring, the county council has received a number of enquiries from other schools about how they could run a similar service for their children.

"I can see this being taken up by many other schools," said Vincent McDonnell. "It's a highly practical way of helping children, especially in the inner-city areas."

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