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SCHOOL BREAKFAST CLUBS WORK THEIR MAGIC: ”Exceptional” educational gains from offering free food in disadvantaged primaries

Providing school breakfasts free to all children in disadvantaged English primary schools helps them to make two months'' additional progress in reading, writing and mathematics over the course of a year. This is the central finding of research by Christine Farquharson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

In the study, the Education Endowment Foundation funded the charity Magic Breakfast so that 53 schools could establish breakfast clubs in 2014/15 at a total cost of £25 per eligible pupil. The Institute for Fiscal Studies analysed the results by comparing the schools offering breakfast clubs to similar schools, and finds that children aged 6 and 7 made an additional two months'' progress in core subjects. Children aged 10 and 11 made similar gains in English.

These gains seem to be driven by fewer illness-related absences and by better behaviour and concentration in the classroom, meaning that even students who don''t eat breakfast at school can benefit from the improved learning environment.

The author comments: ''The improvement in classroom behaviour and concentration in schools randomly selected for Magic Breakfast support is exceptional. In the policy-making world, the effect of Magic Breakfast provision is as close to magic as an intervention can get.''

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Breakfast clubs work their magic in disadvantaged English schools

Providing school breakfasts free to all children in disadvantaged English primary schools helps pupils to make two months'' additional progress over the course of a year. These gains seem to be driven by fewer illness-related absences and by better behaviour and concentration in the classroom, meaning that even students who don''t eat breakfast at school can benefit from the improved learning environment.

Relative to other programmes with a similar impact on attainment, the benefits come at a very low cost – less than £25 per eligible pupil over the course of an academic year.

In this study, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity Magic Breakfast offered support to 53 schools to establish breakfast clubs in 2014/15. The package of support lasted for one 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, researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies 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 who did not receive the support that year (the ''control'' group).

The effect of breakfast clubs on attainment
Year 2 children (aged 6/7) whose schools were offered breakfast club support made the equivalent of two months'' additional progress in reading, writing and mathematics 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 mathematics were smaller.

How does breakfast club provision affect attainment?

Our results suggest that the gains are likely to be the result of the content or context of school breakfast, rather than of increasing overall breakfast consumption. For example, children eating breakfast at school might enjoy more nutritious food or the chance to build stronger relationships with other pupils and staff.

We find that the school breakfast provision is likely to have worked through a combination of improving behaviour and promoting pupil health. There were very large improvements in behaviour and concentration in breakfast club schools (equivalent to moving a classroom from average ratings of each to ratings in the top quarter of the schools in our sample).

Further, breakfast club provision reduced authorised absences, which are mostly due to ill health, by almost a day each term for pupils in the breakfast club schools.

Is breakfast club provision cost effective?

These gains in pupil achievement were delivered at relatively low cost. The intervention cost just £23.25 per student over the course of the academic year (including schools'' reported costs for staff time and the retail cost of the food provided by Magic Breakfast).

But 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 a higher impact on attainment.

Conclusion

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.

Our results show that schools and government are right to look to universal breakfast club provision in disadvantaged schools as a way to enhance pupils'' experience of school, and ultimately their educational attainment.

The improvement in classroom behaviour and concentration in schools randomly selected for Magic Breakfast support is exceptional. In the policy-making world, the effect of Magic Breakfast provision is as close to magic as an intervention can get.