Heads and doctors want needy children to get free breakfast as Guardian survey reveals upsurge in demand
Children, parents and teachers at Hill Mead primary school in Brixton, south London, tell Amelia Gentleman how they value the breakfast club. Video: John Domokos Link to this video
Headteachers and senior doctors are calling for needy children to receive a free breakfast at school after a Guardian survey found almost half of teachers have brought food in for pupils who arrive at school with empty stomachs.
Four out of five teachers (83%) see pupils who are hungry in the morning and 55% said up to a quarter of pupils arrive having not eaten enough. More than half say the number of children involved has been rising in the past year or two, which have seen some families hit hard by the recession, unemployment and benefit cuts.
In the survey of 591 teachers across Britain who belong to the online Guardian Teacher Network, 49% said they have taken food or fruit into school to give to children who have not had breakfast. Almost one in five (17%) have given such pupils money out of their own pockets to buy lunch.
Almost four in five (78%) said they wanted children from low-income families to get a free breakfast on arrival at school, just as some already receive a free lunch.
The Royal College of GPs, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health are urging ministers to examine the viability of ensuring that the 1.3 million children in England who qualify for free school meals also get a free breakfast.
Dr Clare Gerada, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said free breakfasts would help tackle health problems in children related to poverty and poor diet, such as anaemia and stunted growth, boost their self-esteem and narrow the social class divide in schools.
“It is sad to hear of so many children being hungry and that lack of family resources appears to be a major contributor to this. As a GP I see poverty presenting in my consulting room on a daily basis and it is important that all governments address child poverty as a matter of urgency,” she said.
“Providing free school breakfast to those eligible for free school meals would be a start. Though clearly it would not address the underlying issue of poverty, [it] would at least mean that children from poor families would not jeopardise their chances of learning.”
Asked to identify what alerted them to pupils being hungry in the morning, teachers in the survey said lack of concentration (91%), tiredness (86%), pupils’ behaviour (72%) and children saying they feel unwell (63%).
Steve Iredale, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, who is head of a primary school in Barnsley, said: “The survey results are quite shocking. I can believe that it’s a growing problem. I’ve seen it in my school. A child who’s arriving at school hungry and tired can’t learn. Free school breakfasts could help tackle that. They would be a way forward.”
The pupils affected are from families who are just above the eligibility criteria for free school meals, even though their household income is low, added Iredale, who represents 28,000 heads, deputies and assistants.
But he stressed that practical issues for schools, such as the need to pay staff to provide breakfasts and the lack of kitchens in some schools, needed to be addressed before schools could take on any new responsibility. Free school meals have existed since 1945 and about 1.3 million children in England receive one, at a cost of £500m a year. The Child Poverty Action Group claims that 700,000 pupils in England alone who live in poverty miss out because eligibility is too tight.
The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is so concerned about hungry pupils that he is preparing to fund the charity Magic Breakfast to provide free breakfasts at 50 schools in the poorest parts of the capital for three years. The money will come from the Mayor’s Fund for London, which is mainly funded by donations from City firms. Chris Robinson, the fund’s chief executive officer, said recently that he was “impressed” by Magic Breakfast’s work. “They are meeting a real need in a practical way,” he said.
The teachers’ survey also found that:
• 55% said up to a quarter of pupils arrived hungry; 28% said up to a half of their children did; 8% said it was up to three-quarters; and 2% said it was every pupil.
• 72% identified lack of parenting skills as a reason for the growing number of pupils going hungry; 58% said family health or social problems; 44% said lack of family time; 41% cited benefit cuts and 35% said cost-of-living pressures.
• 20% said the increase in pupil hunger they had seen was “dramatic”, while 68% said it was “moderate”.
• 89% said the lack of breakfast for some pupils affected the teaching of other pupils in the class; only 4% disagreed.
• 59% said children were sometimes taken out of class due to illness or behaviour and given something to eat and 13% said that occurred regularly.
Dr Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said children who do not eat before coming to school “are also much more likely to tuck into unhealthy snacks during break times, which is no substitute for a good breakfast and can play havoc with children’s blood sugar levels and their overall diets”.
Parents, not just schools, needed to be involved in “a concerted effort on all fronts” to ensure children have food at the start of the day, Cass added. Given school breakfast clubs’ proven benefits for pupils’ learning and behaviour “we need to look seriously at how successful models such as these can be replicated”, she said.
Magic Breakfast provides free food in 200 of the 1,000 primary schools in England in which more than half of pupils receive free school meals. It is delivering 20% more food to schools than a year ago, said Carmel McConnell, the charity’s founder.
“Need is escalating. We’re being overtaken by need on the ground. Schools are asking us for more of the cereal, bagels, porridge and orange juice we provide. When I ask schools why they need more food, they say more pupils are coming in hungry. When I ask them why that is, they say there are more parents who have lost their jobs in the last year,” said McConnell.
“It’s a scar on our society, the sheer volume of schoolchildren coming into school who are missing half a day’s learning because of hunger and malnourishment,” she added. “How can we talk about being a rich and responsible society when we’ve got so many children arriving at school too hungry to learn?”
Every pupil at a maintained primary school in Wales has been offered a free school breakfast since 2004, when the Labour-only government was led by first minister Rhodi Morgan, irrespective of need and their family’s circumstances. Some 1,052 primary schools – 75% of the total – now provide them, and the proportion having of pupils having a free breakfast at least once a week has risen steadily to 36.4%, a spokesman for the Welsh government said. The initiative costs the cardiff administration £11.3m in this school year but that is due to rise to £12.7m in 2012-13.
“Breakfast has long been recognised as the most important meal of the day and evidence shows that a healthy breakfast is linked to better health, concentration and behaviour in our schools. Associated costs have risen each year, which reflects the increasing numbers of young people participating in and benefitting from this successful and popular scheme”, added the spokesman.
Ministers in England have no plans to introduce free school breakfasts.
Pupils who receive free school meals only get fed at lunchtime. The Department for Education (DfE) does not intend to extend eligibility to outside the school day but is happy for individual schools or local councils to use their own resources to bring in free breakfasts for needy pupils.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We know how important it is for children to have a healthy breakfast.
“Many schools provide breakfast clubs as part of their extended services, which can improve children’s attendance and motivation and provide a good opportunity to promote healthy eating among children and young people.”