Tories pledge free breakfasts for all primary pupils but fund only a quarter

Education Datalab estimates true costs would be nearly three times higher, even if just a fifth of pupils take up the offer

Helen Ward

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The Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge of free breakfasts for all primary school pupils is based on funding fewer than a quarter of eligible children, researchers have revealed.

The party has promised to "offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school".

It said that funding would partly come from scrapping free school lunches for all infants.

Now Education Datalab has published its own evaluation of providing school breakfasts and concluded that the £60 million cost, which the Tories have said will be needed to fulfil its breakfast promise for all primary children, looks “very optimistic”.

The blogpost, written by Philip Nye, says that the expected price of providing free breakfasts seems to be based on the Education Endowment Foundation’s evaluation of the Magic Breakfast scheme – something the Conservatives have now confirmed.

But it points out that the evaluation states that, in the study, only 23.6 per cent of the sample actually took up the offer of the free breakfast.

Some costs 'seem very low'

“Take-up is certainly sure to be some way less than 100 per cent – the offer of a free breakfast won’t alone be enough of an incentive to persuade some families to change their morning routine, and stop having breakfast as a family,” Mr Nye writes.

“And there are reasons to think that schools that participated in the Magic Breakfast trial might have higher take-up than other schools. These schools had high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals, so it seems reasonable to think there might have been more demand for a free breakfast.

“But provision of a breakfast before regular school hours might be looked at by some in another way – as a substitute for morning childcare. This would suggest that take-up might actually be highest in areas where parents already currently pay for morning childcare.”

Education Datalab also argues that some of the costs included in the Magic Breakfast evaluation "seem very low", transating to to each school spending just £6.26 per day on staffing for the scheme.

It has calculated what it argues are more realistic cost estimates of the free breakfasts. It concludes that if the take-up of breakfasts was just 20 per cent and breakfasts were delivered before the school day, rather than in lesson time, the cost would be £174 million a year – almost three times the figure given by the Conservatives.

And if take-up rose, costs would rise, too. A 100 per cent take up would cost more than £800 million, Education Datalab estimates.

'An offer that nobody wants'

Rebecca Allen, the Director of Education Datalab, said underfunding the scheme would encourage schools to offer it in a way no parent would want.

“Think about the incentives as a headteacher," she said. "You are told you have to deliver a policy but you are not being given enough money. What are your incentives? Your incentives are to ensure that this does not act as a childcare substitute and that it is an undesirable offer for children.

“That sounds like an awful thing to say, but the state of funding in primary schools now means they simply can’t cross-subsidise this from anything else, so all of your incentives are stacked around ensuring you are delivering an offer that nobody wants.

“As a parent who would love to have breakfast clubs in schools that open at 8am, so I can then go to work, it would seem sad if we end up in that position, simply because we underfunded the policy, which in itself is a policy I really like.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We are offering funding to allow all primary schools to offer a free breakfast club. The costs will vary depending on how many pupils at any given school take up this offer.

“We will increase the schools budget such that by 2021/22 we will be spending £4 billion more on schools than we are now. This represents a real terms increase for every year of the Parliament.”

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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