Free school meals or breakfast clubs? Child hunger in England

by Stacey Dingwall

For a lot of us, the removal of the turkey twizzler was the biggest school meals-related political upset of the last decade. However, during the recent election campaign another, more serious, row emerged: over the provision of universal free school meals to English children in Reception through to Year 2.

Manifesto proposals

The proposal to scrap the policy introduced by the coalition government in 2014 was one of the Conservative manifesto proposals that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Speech. Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the policy had been ditched at the start of this month, stating that existing provision would be retained following the government having “carefully listened” to parents.

In their manifesto, the Labour party promised to extend universal provision to all primary school aged children, to be funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

Is FSM for all viable?

Financially, Labour’s proposal was deemed to be viable, in theory at least. Charging VAT on private school fees was calculated to be worth just over £1.5bn a year, provided all pupils were paying a full fee. The IFS have suggested that extending provision to all primary pupils would cost in the region of £950m annually.

In 2012 the IFS, in partnership with NatCen, carried out an evaluation of a pilot study which offered free school meals to all Year 6 pupils in Newham and Durham. The evaluation found that the pupils made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas, although it wasn’t able to definitively identify how this progress was made – i.e. it was unable to conclude that the provision of free school meals was the reason.

Breakfast clubs

Discussing the evaluation findings within the context of the 2017 manifesto proposals, the IFS highlighted findings from other research they’ve carried out into breakfast clubs.  This is something we’ve discussed before on the blog: our 2015 post highlighted a range of evidence that school breakfast clubs have a positive impact on children’s academic performance. The IFS study looked at one of the schemes, Magic Breakfast, and found that improvements in pupil performance were “likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to provide free breakfasts in place of universal free lunch provision. This was dismissed as “not comparable” by parents however, and described by some in the education sector as merely a cost-cutting exercise (that had not in fact been costed correctly) rather than a drive to boost attainment.

Child hunger in 2017

The reason why so many were critical of the proposal to remove the universal entitlement to free school meals is that for some children, it’s the only nourishment they’ll receive all day. Just because a child is entitled to a free lunch doesn’t mean they’ll claim it – a range of evidence has highlighted the stigma children can be exposed to if meals aren’t free for all. Extending provision to all has been found to be the best way of helping those who need it most, rather than singling them out.

In 2017, it’s shameful that children in a developed country are still suffering from hunger. As new figures from the Trussell Trust reveal that the already shocking levels of reliance on foodbanks increases even more during school holidays, it’s clear that any policy which risks making the situation for already vulnerable children even worse needs to be abandoned.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Talking to children about poverty: why education needs to get in on the act

boy with bear

1 in 5 children in poverty

Scotland has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. The latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that 1 in 5 children in Scotland live in poverty, with the figure rising to 1 in 3 in the urban centre of Glasgow. With more and more families falling into relative poverty and the numbers of working poor rising, the newly branded “JAMs” (just about managing) are, in some cases not managing, having to decide between heating their house or feeding their families.

People are affected by poverty in many different ways. For adults it can lower self-esteem, increase levels of stress, and can have consequences for mental and physical health. However, it’s sometimes forgotten that many children can feel these same effects from growing up in a family living in poverty.

In the same way as adults, many children suffer from low self-esteem and feel the invisible burden of the stigma that the label of “poverty” places on them. In addition, children affected by poverty:

  • are more likely to be victims of bullying;
  • tend to have lower attainment at school;
  • have fewer social networks or groups of friends;
  • suffer from poorer physical and mental health;
  • have less chance of leaving school with a full set of qualifications and going on to further or higher education (despite the best efforts of various governments to change this); and
  • are more likely than “affluent children” to spend their adulthood in poverty too.

How children understand poverty

Many children have an understanding of poverty as meaning “poor” or lacking in money. Concepts such as heating a home, building personal debt or not being able to afford to travel to work are not things they yet associate as being part of the cost of living, despite many of them seeing their own parents face these struggles on a weekly basis.

They associate poverty with foreign, particularly third world nations, as well as with homelessness, loneliness, a lack of familial support and a reliance on donations. Many children, even from the poorest backgrounds do not recognise themselves as being in poverty. This is something highlighted in research conducted by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII), which looked at child perceptions of poverty, and expressing these through alternate methods such as art.

In the study, children from schools in less affluent areas of Glasgow and Aberdeen were surveyed and many regarded notions of poverty as a distant, “third world” concept. However, when they were engaged in more creative methods, such as drama, or art, expressions of their experiences of poverty became more acute.

School children raising hands. View from behind.

Engaging education professionals in the poverty discourse

In Scotland, the overarching framework of Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is designed to bring services and professionals with whom children come into contact closer together to create a complete model of care for a child. It is interesting that in the latest commitment to tackling child poverty in Scotland there is no commitment to including teachers or education in general, in the same way as health professionals or social workers.

We know that poverty can have an adverse impact on wellbeing and on learning, and that children who live in poverty are more likely to be absent from school. However, education professionals are largely excluded from the discussions which child welfare officers, social workers, doctors and third sector colleagues are already having around the health and wellbeing of children who are living in poverty.

In a practical sense schools do, to a degree, already engage in reducing the impact of child poverty by providing financial and practical help. This could include subsidies for school meals or trips, the donation of free uniforms, breakfast clubs and tutoring after school classes. There have even been cases of individual teachers giving children clean clothes, meals or allowing them to sleep in the staff room at break and lunchtimes to allow them to catch up on sleep lost because of a disruptive lifestyle at home. However, talking about poverty with children is often neglected. This is something that academics are keen to see schools do more of – use their position to engage children in talking about poverty in order to help identify children at risk, but also to help raise the issue with other children who may not have experienced it or know what it is.

Using creative methods in schools to talk about poverty

Many academics argue that statistics on attainment can be misleading – while poverty has a significant impact, it does not correlate directly to cognitive ability. As one researcher at a seminar suggested, “just because you were born poor does not mean you were born without the ability to learn”. While there is evidence to suggest the slower development of children who live in poverty is acute in the early years, there is also evidence that the attainment gap is closing – what children in poverty miss out on is opportunity, variation and experience, and a chance to develop, rather than having lower overall cognitive function. This is one of the reasons, academics argue, it is so vital to engage teachers in wider discussions on child poverty.

For example, the vocabulary of children in poverty is often smaller in range than that of their more affluent peers. But, rather than this being the result of reduced cognitive function, researchers have found that this is primarily because they have not had the need to learn new words. Unlike children from more affluent backgrounds, they tend to remain within their community unit, using more colloquial language and a more limited number of words; they also often have less access to books or exposure to cultural experiences. That is not to say that they could not learn or have learnt all of the words that a child from a more affluent area knows; it’s just that they have not had the need or the opportunity to learn them yet. With this in mind, alternative methods of communication such as art, dance and storytelling could prove useful in explaining poverty to children, and helping them to discuss their experiences and understanding of what it means to be in poverty.


Using creative ways of communicating and engaging with children has already been found useful in helping them to talk about other issues personal to them, such as trauma or abuse. Researchers from the Scottish University Insight Institute-funded research team employed similar methods, using art, drama and play to help children express their feelings on poverty, and how it could be tackled in their communities. Children acted out scenarios, wrote poems, and created a number of pieces of tactile artwork, including sculptures and drawings. It was thought that these same methods could be used by teachers as a way to allow children to communicate their feelings about poverty and express issues relating to their own personal experiences without feeling stigmatised or singled out by other members of the class.

It is clear that the education profession has an important role, not only in helping to alleviate the effects of poverty on children through schemes like breakfast clubs, but also in a teaching and learning role. Many teachers and schools are averse to raise issues of money or poverty with children for fear of placing unnecessary distress onto children. However, sensitive and context-aware teaching on the issues around poverty should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden to teachers.

Effective discussion could go a long way to helping children to open up about experiences of poverty and also help them to be more understanding of other children who are living in poverty, reducing stigma and encouraging positive action within their local communities.

This blog reflects on research from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute and seminar participation at the Centre for Child Well-being and Protection at the University of Stirling.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other article on arts based practice with children.

Brain food: the impact of breakfast on children’s educational attainment

By Stacey Dingwall

In the wake of the recession, food poverty and the rising number of foodbanks in the UK have frequently been in the headlines. At the other end of the spectrum, another nutrition-related issue that tends to be picked up on regularly by the media is child obesity. However, in a report released to coincide with their annual conference in May of this year, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called attention to a concern that has not been as headline-grabbing: schools are now providing a great deal of welfare support to pupils that goes above and beyond their usual remit, including teachers bringing in food from home for pupils who have been sent to school hungry.

Hunger in the classroom

These findings echo those reported by the cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s in 2013. Based on a survey of over 700 teachers in England and Wales, A lost education: the reality of hunger in the classroom suggested that:

  • On average, 2.4 children in England and Wales were arriving to school hungry on at least one occasion per week;
  • 28% of teachers reported an increase in the number of children arriving to school hungry;
  • 31% of teachers indicated that they had to spend a disproportionately higher amount of time with children who arrived at school hungry than those who did not;
  • 51% suggested that hunger is a significant factor in the exam performance of pupils; and
  • if a child arrives at school hungry, teachers estimated that they would lose an hour of learning time that day; for those that come to school without breakfast once a week, this equates to 8.4 weeks of learning time (70% of a term) over the course of their entire primary school career.

Empty stomachs, empty brains?

The findings of a literature review, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013, of the effects that eating breakfast has on children’s behaviour and academic performance indicated  a “mainly positive effect of breakfast on on-task behaviour in the classroom” and highlighted evidence that frequent breakfast consumption had  a positive effect on children’s academic performance, with the clearest effects seen on mathematic and arithmetic grades. The review also noted the positive influence of school-based breakfast initiatives, more commonly known as ‘breakfast clubs’.

The impact of school breakfast clubs

As well as carrying out research on the impact of breakfast clubs, Kellogg’s operates a support network for schools to run clubs, offering grants and training materials. According to the company, 69% of the teachers they surveyed in 2013 said that running a breakfast club had had a positive impact on their ability to teach their class.

This sentiment is echoed by the School Food Trust, whose review of the impact of primary school breakfast clubs in deprived areas of London found that the average Key Stage 2 results of pupils in 13 primary schools were significantly higher a year after the introduction of the initiative. In North Lanarkshire, one primary school’s award-winning breakfast club has demonstrated the educational benefits of having children at school early, well-fed and ready to learn. While other studies of the impact of school-based breakfast initiatives have found less definitive evidence of their impact on children’s academic performance, their positive effect on pupils’ attendance and punctuality is noted, which can be no bad thing for their academic potential.

The Education Endowment Fund is currently undertaking a randomised control trial of school breakfast provision involving 36,000 pupils in 200 schools across England. The study aims to look at impact on attainment and cost-effectiveness of different models, and the evaluation report is due to be published in 2016.

Supporting breakfast clubs

Understanding the impact of nutrition on children’s outcomes is crucial if the government is to provide additional support to local authorities whose schools are providing breakfast clubs for their pupils. Although support is available from companies like Kellogg’s and Greggs, as well as charitable organisations, these are often competitive grants-based schemes, with application processes that only place further pressure on already overstretched teachers and schools. And in the face of ongoing cuts to local authority funding, many are echoing the call of the NAHT for the government to do more to support schools to cope with the consequences of the austerity agenda, as well as make the improvements that are being demanded of them.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on educational attainment – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

 Further reading

The School Food Plan

Examining the impact of school breakfast provision on health, wellbeing and educational engagement in a sample of schools in Blackpool: brief report (2013, Children’s Food Trust)

Effects of a free school breakfast programme on children’s attendance, academic achievement and short-term hunger: results from a stepped-wedge, cluster randomised controlled trial, IN Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol 67 No 3 2013, pp257-264

A zero hunger city: tackling food poverty in London (2013, Greater London Authority)

Effects of a free school breakfast programme on children’s attendance, academic achievement and short-term hunger: results from a stepped-wedge, cluster randomised controlled trial, IN Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol 67 No 3 2013, pp257-264

Averting a recipe for disaster: our children and their food (2013, Ella’s Kitchen)