The health cost of cutting free school lunches will be far greater than the price of them

Food for thought. SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

The Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to replace free school lunches – for children in the first three years of primary school in England – with free breakfasts is curious to say the least.

Since it was announced, researchers have found that the cost of the project is hugely undervalued. In an official statement launched before the manifesto, the party said that breakfast clubs “will cost £60m a year”. It has since been found that this would be the equivalent of less than 7p per pupil.

Further analysis by think tank Education Datalab has found that if only half of pupils take up the free breakfast at a more realistic cost of 25p – though even this would only amount to porridge with milk – it could cost more than £400m when extra staffing costs are added in.

Before the financial disparity was highlighted, questions quickly arose over whether a free school breakfast for all children could be better than a free school lunch for some.

Reports warned that almost a million children from poor backgrounds could lose out under the new policy. And it could potentially cost families £440 for each child affected every year.

Not all children can, or want to, attend the breakfast clubs, however. Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who was a champion of the policy when it was rolled out in 2014, has warned that “the offer of free breakfasts won’t reach the children who don’t come to breakfast clubs”.

Questionable research

Though the Conservatives have issued statements saying that breakfasts are “at least as effective as lunch”, the data that they are relying on is simply not enough.

The manifesto pledge is backed by the findings of a pilot study: the Magic Breakfast Project. Year two and year six students in 106 English schools were allocated to receive free breakfast every day during the 2014-2015 academic year in the context of a breakfast club. There was also a control group, for whom breakfast was not provided.

The childrens’ academic achievement was measured by assessing Key Stages one and two assessments in maths and English, along with teachers’ feedback on class behaviour and concentration. The breakfasts were found to be successful in increasing the academic achievement of year two students and helping them to get two months ahead of their peers. Teachers also reported improved behaviour and concentration.

But there are a few problems here. While the Key Stage assessments might provide some unbiased information, behaviour and concentration was only assessed by teachers, who were likely to know whether the student attended the breakfast club. With most other literature reporting the positive effects of breakfast on students, this observation could well have been biased.

Educational benefit

In a very recent review of the academic research on the impact of dietary intake on school performance, it was found that most studies have looked at the effects of breakfast consumption on academic performance.

That doesn’t mean that breakfast aids academic achievement in school-aged children better than lunch. It means that there is more evidence from (mainly cross-sectional) breakfast studies.

Ideally, to compare the two, there would need to be randomised control trials with direct comparisons between different types of meal and educational outcomes – at present there are none.

Academic achievement is an important criterion, but it shouldn’t be the only one on which we measure the success of a school provision. For many children, their free school lunch may be the only hot meal they have in a day. It may also be the only opportunity they have to eat a nutritious meal, including vegetables to support the development of healthy eating habits, and protein to support physical development.

In short, lunchtime is one more lesson on healthy eating and on what a healthy meal should look like.

Although Theresa May pledged to keep free school lunches for the poorer students, the criteria that will be set are unclear and, considering a lot of poor students were left out before the provision, this is concerning.

But regardless of financial background, healthy eating is something every student should learn. This is about educating children to hopefully make healthier choices throughout their lives.

Social skills

The Magic Breakfast Project makes another very important point that was overlooked in the manifesto: it is not just eating breakfast that delivers improvements, but attending a breakfast club.

It might be the experience of communal eating itself, a time spent with their peers interacting in a non-academic environment, that explains the findings. Considering the Conservative Party is quoting only 25% of children attend breakfast clubs at present, a large proportion of students might miss the opportunity of the free meal and this experience of communal eating. On the contrary, school lunches are attended by all students, providing an equal opportunity to all.

There is not, at present, enough convincing evidence to switch from free school lunches for some children to free breakfasts for all. The financial costs alone are a cause for concern, but the ramifications it could have on teaching children to lead healthy lives are too great to ignore.