Hunger at school widens the attainment gap

Breakfast clubs may help children learn
Kelly Sikkema, unsplash.com
Kelly Sikkema, unsplash.com

Missing out on food has negative short-term and long-term consequences for children’s cognition and attainment, with the greatest impact on those who are most disadvantaged. Breakfast clubs can be difficult to implement, but help bring nutritious food to children so they start the school day ready to learn.

Children’s food hit the headlines in England recently, when a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford resulted in the COVID Summer Food Fund. This fund provides food vouchers outside of term time for children who usually receive free school meals (because their parents receive income support). Clearly, making sure that children are well fed is important in its own right, but it is also important for learning.

It is estimated that across many countries, around 20-30% of students skip breakfast, which can affect their cognition and school performance. And while these negative impacts on tasks that are more demanding or involve working memory can affect all children, the picture is significantly worse for those who are already poorly nourished. They are more adversely affected by skipping breakfast than their peers, and there are long-term effects on their cognition. Lack of food for disadvantaged students therefore contributes to the attainment gap – the gap in academic performance between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.

“Lack of food for disadvantaged students therefore contributes to the attainment gap.”

Are breakfast clubs a solution?

Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school-run breakfast clubs were one way of getting a meal to disadvantaged children before the school day. A typical breakfast club might involve inviting parents to drop their child off at school up to an hour early, to eat a meal provided by the school before lessons begin. Some schools offer free meals for all pupils, some schools charge due to a lack of funding, and some schools offer free meals just for the most disadvantaged students.

A recent evaluation looked at the challenges involved in providing breakfast clubs and how parents can be supported in bringing their children to breakfast clubs. Alongside the positive impact of eating breakfast on learning, the evaluation pointed to social benefits of mixing with children of other ages at the breakfast club, plus improved school attendance and behaviour.

“Well run, free, supportive breakfast clubs should ensure children start the day well fed and ready to learn.”

But the evaluation also highlighted barriers – the breakfast clubs were not always reaching students who might benefit most. Staff seemed to consider breakfast club a childcare offer, overlooking the expected benefits on cognition and learning, and therefore potentially not publicising it widely. Parents reported not seeing information about the breakfast clubs, as it was often advertised just once when it started. Difficult school-parent relationships might also dissuade staff from suggesting breakfast club attendance and parents from signing their child up.

There are important lessons here. Breakfast clubs should be promoted to parents through ongoing announcements via different methods of communication, and awareness should be raised among staff and parents of the benefits beyond childcare. Encouraging a community feel at breakfast clubs may help to improve school-parent relationships. Access to breakfast clubs should be as easy as possible – although funding remains a challenge for many schools.

“Can we not also agree that no child should be going to school hungry?”

In England, financial help is being provided through the National School Breakfast Programme – a £24 million initiative to support or improve breakfast clubs in 1,775 schools. An evaluation report of this programme will be published later this year, providing further evidence of the effects of breakfast clubs on learning and behavioural outcomes in disadvantaged students. Sadly, there is a possibility that breakfast clubs will be too unsafe to open when schools start again, contributing to a widening of the attainment gap.

Well run, free, supportive breakfast clubs (when they can safely reopen) should ensure children start the day well fed and ready to learn – particularly those who might otherwise go hungry. In Marcus Rashford’s open letter to MPs, he asked, “can we not agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?” Can we not also agree that no child should be going to school hungry?

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