Children who come to school hungry are less attentive, more disruptive and less likely to understand and remember the day’s lessons. UK policymakers are trying to address these problems by implementing school nutrition programmes, including new school food standards in England, a universal breakfast programme in Wales and a universal entitlement to free school lunches for children aged 4–7 in England.
New research by IFS researchers in collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau finds that offering relatively disadvantaged primary schools in England support to establish a universal, free, before-school breakfast club can improve pupils’ academic attainment.
In this study, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity Magic Breakfast offered support to 53 schools to establish breakfast clubs. The package of support lasted for one year (the 2014/15 academic year) and included as much food as required (free of cost), a £300 grant to each school to offset start-up costs such as buying a freezer, and advice and guidance from a dedicated ‘School Change Leader’.
To establish the effect of breakfast clubs on academic achievement, we compared the attainment of children aged 6/7 and 10/11 in the schools that were randomly chosen to receive this support with that of children in a group of 53 similar schools that did not receive the support that year (the ‘control’ group). Although the breakfast clubs were available to children of all ages in each school that received support, we focused on pupils in Years 2 and 6 because the assessments in these years are comparable across all schools in England.
The effect of breakfast clubs on attainment
Year 2 children (aged 6/7) whose schools were offered support to open a breakfast club made the equivalent of two months’ additional progress in reading, writing and maths over the course of a year compared with students in the control group of schools. Year 6 children (aged 10/11) had similar gains in English, though the effects on maths and science were smaller. The gains in attainment for younger children are a similar size to those found in previous research, which led to the expansion of free school meals to all infant pupils in England. This means that there is consistent evidence that school nutrition programmes can improve academic attainment.
How does breakfast club provision affect attainment?
To understand why setting up a breakfast club led to higher pupil attainment, we used surveys and administrative data to analyse how the breakfast club support affected pupil hunger, absences from school, late arrivals to school, teachers’ perceptions of student behaviour and concentration, and pupil health (as measured by Body Mass Index). We found that:
- Gains are likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts, rather than of increasing overall breakfast consumption. Offering schools support to hold breakfast clubs markedly increased the number of students eating breakfast at school. Compared with students in the control group, more than three times as many students in schools that received the intervention ate breakfast at school (22% versus 7% in control schools). However, the impact of the breakfast clubs on the number of students eating breakfast at all was modest (91% in breakfast club schools versus 89% in control schools). This means that a large number of pupils switched from eating breakfast at home to eating breakfast at school. This suggests that the breakfast clubs’ positive impact on attainment came from the content and context of school breakfasts, such as eating more nutritious food or building stronger relationships with other pupils and staff in a relaxed environment.
- Pupil absences declined as a result of breakfast club provision, falling by almost one half-day per year. The effect was particularly strong for authorised absences, which are primarily due to ill health. This suggests that the breakfast club might have improved pupil health, although we did not find strong evidence to support this when looking at the average Body Mass Index of students in Year 6. Late arrivals were not significantly affected by the offer of a before-school breakfast club.
- Behaviour and concentration in the classroom improved substantially as a result of the breakfast club provision, suggesting that a better classroom learning environment is an important mechanism through which the intervention might improve attainment. The improvement in teachers’ assessments of their classroom learning environment was equivalent to moving a classroom from average ratings of behaviour and concentration to ratings in the top quarter of the schools in our sample.
Is breakfast club provision cost-effective?
These gains in pupil achievement were delivered at relatively low cost. Dividing the costs by all pupils in the school, the intervention cost just £11.86 per eligible pupil over the course of the academic year. It also required 2.6 hours of staff time per eligible pupil per year. It should be noted, however, that the breakfast club take-up rates were relatively low – the average school’s take-up rate was between 13% and 52%. An increase in take-up would lead to higher costs, but also potentially higher impact on attainment.
It is also worth noting that, while relatively disadvantaged students (those eligible for free school meals) were more likely to attend the breakfast clubs, the intervention was more effective at raising the attainment of pupils from less disadvantaged backgrounds (those not eligible for free school meals). This suggests that support for school breakfast clubs might not reduce socio-economic gaps in pupil attainment.
The 2013 School Food Plan recommended that schools with relatively more disadvantaged pupils should establish breakfast clubs to help address the problem of pupil hunger. Resulting from this, the Department for Education committed to provide funding for breakfast clubs in schools where more than 35% of pupils are eligible for free school meals and there is no existing breakfast club provision. The government’s Budget in March 2016 also included a pledge for a further £10 million a year to expand breakfast club provision from September 2017.
Our results indicate that additional funding of this kind can boost attainment, improve the classroom learning environment and reduce absences in disadvantaged schools – and all at relatively low cost per pupil. Universal breakfast club provision in disadvantaged schools should therefore be considered by schools allocating their pupil premium budget (and rightly by government) as a way to enhance pupils’ experience of school, and ultimately their educational attainment. As breakfast clubs are set to expand across the country, further research is needed to determine the most effective model of provision – for example, whether before school or as part of a soft start to the school day. Future academic research should be targeted at better understanding how health and education policies can interact to improve both children’s health and education outcomes. For example, is adequate nutrition a prerequisite for any educational improvements from traditional academic interventions?
More generally, this work shows that health- and nutrition-based policies can have real impacts on educational outcomes. In fact, providing a breakfast club in disadvantaged schools looks more cost-effective than both the universal provision of free school meals for infant pupils and many other interventions targeted directly on educational outcomes. The improvement in classroom behaviour and concentration in schools randomly selected for Magic Breakfast support is exceptional. In the policymaking world, the effect of Magic Breakfast provision is as close to magic as an intervention can get.
The results of the breakfast club evaluation featured in this work were updated in December 2019. See the revised report here.