|Date:||01 July 2017|
|Contacts:||Claire Crawford , Ellen Greaves and Christine Farquharson|
Children who come to school hungry are less attentive, more disruptive and less likely to understand and remember the day’s lessons. UK policymakers have tried to address these problems by implementing school nutrition programmes. IFS research has examined the impacts of providing free universal before-school breakfast clubs in disadvantaged primary schools in England. Results suggest that breakfast clubs can improve test scores in these schools by a similar amount and at a lower cost than other school nutrition programmes. The research contributed to a growing evidence base regarding school nutrition programmes, as well as policy proposals during the 2017 General Election.
In collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau, IFS researchers analysed the effect of breakfast clubs on academic attainment as well as related outcomes such as pupil behaviour, absences from school, and health. In the study, the Education Endowment Foundation funded the charity Magic Breakfast so that 53 disadvantaged primary schools could establish breakfast clubs in 2014–15. To estimate the effect of breakfast clubs on academic achievement, the research compared the test scores of children aged 6–7 and 10–11 in the schools that were randomly chosen to receive the intervention with those of children in a group of 53 similar schools that did not receive the support that year. In order to further understand how the breakfast clubs influenced attainment, the researchers used surveys and administrative data to analyse the effect of breakfast club support on pupil hunger, absences from and late arrivals to school, and teachers’ perceptions of student behaviour and concentration.
The researchers found that 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 effect on mathematics scores was smaller.
The breakfast clubs substantially improved students’ behaviour and concentration in the classroom: the effect was equivalent to moving an average classroom into the best-behaved quarter of schools in the trial. Pupil absences also fell, with children in breakfast club schools missing almost half a day less school over the year.
Although the researchers found that the breakfast club offer slightly increased the probability of children eating any breakfast, it was much more effective in encouraging children to eat breakfast at school. This suggests that it is not just eating breakfast that delivers benefits, but also attending a breakfast club. This could be due to the nutritional content of the school breakfasts or the benefits of the breakfast club environment.
However, support for school breakfast clubs might not reduce socio-economic gaps in pupil attainment. 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 their less disadvantaged classmates. One possible explanation is that all students, not just those who attend the breakfast club, benefit academically from the better behaviour and improved classroom learning environment that the breakfast clubs deliver.
These gains in achievement were delivered at relatively low cost: just £24 per eligible pupil over the course of the academic year, including spending on up-front costs and staff time (although this is likely to underestimate the costs if the programme were rolled out nationally, since many schools rearranged staff schedules or relied on volunteers). One reason for the low cost is that, while all pupils in the school are eligible, only around 20% actually attended the breakfast club on any given morning. An increase in take-up would lead to higher costs, but also potentially a higher impact on attainment.
The research contributes to a growing evidence base regarding school nutrition programmes. The study generated considerable media interest, including articles in the Financial Times, Guardian, Times and Independent. The evidence was also cited by the Conservative party in support of its 2017 manifesto pledge to offer free school breakfasts for all primary school children.
‘The causal impact of school breakfast clubs on academic attainment’, Claire Crawford, Ellen Greaves and Christine Farquharson, presentation at the 2017 Royal Economic Society conference, 10 April 2017, https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/9130
‘Breakfast clubs work their magic in disadvantaged English schools’, Claire Crawford, Ellen Greaves and Christine Farquharson, IFS Observation, November 2016, https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8714