DMU research shows free breakfasts dramatically improve scores in the 3 Rs for the poorest primary school children

Research carried out in a UK primary school may have thrown up the most compelling evidence yet that offering the poorest children free breakfasts will dramatically improve their scores in reading, writing and maths.

Dr Raymond Moodley, a member of De Montfort University Leicester’s (DMU) Research in Societal Enhancement group (RiSE), says his findings show free breakfasts could help the Government’s attempts to close school attainment gaps and achieve the levelling up they want in the most deprived areas of the UK.

School meals - raymond main

Dr Moodley's research took place over a school year

Dr Moodley spent a year offering 25 primary school children living in poverty in Buckinghamshire free cereal and long-life milk so that they could feed themselves breakfast each morning, including at weekends.

Many of the young children did not have easy access to food because the household was living in poverty. There were also parents who were working long hours on low wage jobs and were not around to see their children fed before school.

Working with the school, Dr Moodley then tracked these children’s progress for the academic year using the standard measures of “accelerated learning”, “expected learning”, and “slow learning”.

The improvements in reading, writing and maths were remarkable with the 25 children’s progress outperforming the rest of the school.

Dr Moodley said: “Closing the attainment gap and levelling up are essential elements of the Government’s priorities. If you want to level up then, close the attainment gap and enhance life outcomes for all children.

“Our study shows that as part of achieving this goal, we must ensure that children are fed properly and have access to food; perhaps provided for them at school.”

Reading progress at the end of the Autumn term showed four per cent of the 25-children cohort were in the accelerated group, 64 per cent in expected learning group and 32 per cent in the slow category.

By the end of the summer term the accelerated group had trebled in size to 12 per cent and the slow progress group had dropped from 32 per cent to 8 per cent, pushing the expected level of learning to 80 per cent. This was significantly faster when compared with the performance of the whole school.

School meals - bar chart

First two columns show huge improvement in reading results over the school year among the poorest 25 children versus the rest of the school (columns 3&4). Maths and writing results were just as impressive.

Similarly, writing progress in the autumn showed there were no children in the accelerated group, 60 per cent were in the expected progress category and 32 per cent were slow progress.

By summer, 24 per cent had moved into the accelerated group for the first time, 72 per cent were in the expected group and the slow group had fallen from 32 per cent to just 4 per cent. Yet again, progress was significantly better when compared with the performance of the whole school.

Mathematics in the autumn showed 8 per cent of pupils were in the accelerated group, 80 per cent in the expected group and 12 per cent were in the slow group. By the summer the accelerated standard was reached by 20 per cent of the pupils.

Dr Moodley said: “Overall, given that these 25 children progressed faster than the whole school, it implies that they closed some of the attainment gap that exists between them and their peers.

“Over time, and continuing at these rates, we would expect the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers to be reduced significantly, if not closed completely.”

School meals - main pic

The findings come after Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, launched a £130m scheme to give every primary school pupil free school meals for the next academic year.

While, late last year, the former Levelling Up and Education Secretary Michael Gove MP backed The Food Foundation’s national campaign to extend access to free school meals to every family receiving Universal Credit.

The free cereal and UHT milk were provided through a grant from De Montfort University’s Engagement and Partnerships team, which offers community support for projects locally and nationally.

Dr Moodley said: “It was sad to know that some of these children were coming to school hungry.

“I found the school had a high attendance rate, but performance was low which tells you those children coming to school were not regularly engaged in learning activity and that could be down to being distracted due to hunger.  

“Maths, reading and writing are considered foundation subjects so they are typically taught in the morning at primary schools to maximise children’s learning capacity.

“The concept is that your cognitive ability is strongest in the morning because you have eaten a filling, high-energy, nutritious meal. However, prior to this research, there were several children from the cohort that did not eat breakfast, purely because there was nothing for them to eat.

“Apart from the impact on education, at a basic human level it is just wrong for children to be hungry anywhere in the world, but particularly in a country as rich as the UK.

“It is well known that those who do well at school go on to have better life outcomes

“What we are doing is assigning poor life outcomes to these children at the age of five or six. This study shows that children who go hungry are likely to under achieve at school, with the majority likely to end up in poverty as adults, and sadly this cycle continues.”

Dr Mario Gongora, the group leader at RiSE added: “We all occasionally hear stories about people who break out of this cycle, but we should all want this to be the norm rather than the exception.

“It is the most compelling evidence yet of the benefits of breakfast clubs at primary school.”

Posted on Tuesday 21 March 2023

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