Breakfast Clubs: Much more than toast and cereal

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Are primary school breakfast clubs everything they’re cracked up to be? Sue Yardley reports on practitioner research carried out in Kensington and Chelsea.

Breakfast clubs are becoming increasingly popular and can be found in primary schools throughout the UK. Tesco even offers vouchers to buy equipment for them. The main driver for the increase in breakfast clubs is the perceived benefit to children and their families - improved learning, attendance and behaviour at school, punctuality, healthy eating, social development, and fun through play. The clubs also help schools meet their statutory obligations in the Childcare Act 2006 and the Extended Schools core offer requirement for 8am – 6pm childcare. Kensington and Chelsea council has encouraged the development of breakfast clubs in all primary schools, based on locally gathered research.

The Children’s Workforce Development council funded a practitioner-led research project over three months to assess the impact of breakfast clubs against three of the Every Child Matters outcomes - be healthy, enjoy and achieve, and economic well-being. At the time of this research in 2007, 16 breakfast clubs were running, which has since risen to 22 (representing 85% of our primary schools). Councillor Shireen Ritchie, cabinet member for family and children’s services, said: “It has long been recognised that a good, healthy breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This is certainly the case for children. In an ideal world, every child would have eaten a nutritious breakfast before setting out for school. But this is often not the case. This is why our breakfast clubs play such an important role in preparing children for the learning and play that lies ahead of them in the school day. Teachers report that breakfast clubs are successful and that the children who attend them are ready to learn.”

The pilot school used for this research was Oxford Gardens primary school in north Kensington, which set up the borough’s first breakfast club in 2000. Run by the council’s play service, it was set up in response to childcare needs for working parents, as growing numbers of children were being left unsupervised in the playground before the start of the school day. A variety of models have since been adopted for the delivery of breakfast clubs, but all of them are either school-operated or run in partnership with the play service. Oxford Gardens is situated in one of the 10 per cent most deprived wards in the UK. In 2007, 43.7 per cent of the students were eligible for free school meals.

A model for breakfast clubs

Targeted support plays a key role in how breakfast clubs are run. This approach was initiated by the Children’s Fund from 2003-2008. With Children’s Fund funding, five schools were supported to assist with the development of breakfast clubs in the borough. Play and school staff worked together to identify children that would benefit from a settling start to the day with structured activities and a healthy breakfast. Free places were assigned in such circumstances.

Children are encouraged to take an active part in the club - helping with clearing away. While sitting together to eat, the children chat and learn to share and to cooperate. This is something many children don’t experience at home. The food served includes wholegrain cereal without added salt and sugar, fruit and yoghurt and a hot option in winter.

Gathering the evidence

The research explored benefits to children who attend the clubs (including attendance, attainment, behaviour, confidence and social skills), benefits to parents and impact on learning from the teachers' perspective (improved behaviour, improved attendance and fewer unauthorised absences). This was carried out through questionnaires, focus groups and interactive feedback activities to find out the views and experiences of the parents, children and teachers. Seven families participated in the research.

Parents were asked to participate in a 90-minute focus group while their children did a play activity. The parent focus group covered the themes of healthy eating, the impact of breakfast clubs on parents’ work/life balance and their child’s experience of the breakfast club.

Prior to the focus group, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire. The children took part in play activities that explored their views on what they enjoyed about breakfast clubs, what healthy eating meant and whether going to the club helped to improve their performance at school. In addition to the focus groups, surveys were given to the teachers, parents and children at all the breakfast clubs.

A great start to the day

Both children and parents demonstrated a good understanding of what constitutes a healthy breakfast. But the majority of parents did not regard the food as the principal reason for bringing their child to breakfast club.

In fact, many parents admitted that they didn’t really know what their children ate at the club. Most children struggled to give a reason as to why having breakfast at the club helped them do better at school, but one child said: “If I don’t my belly hurts and I can’t concentrate. Having breakfast makes me energetic and happy.”

There was much agreement among the children that going to breakfast club helped them do better at school. Seventy per cent of children agreed that since going to breakfast club they focused better in class. Ninety nine per cent agreed that they were on time for class more and seventy one per cent thought they had been ‘doing better at school’. Teachers overwhelmingly agreed that the breakfast club helped the children focus better in class, achieve higher grades and arrive on time.

The headteacher at Oxford Gardens said: “An early start is what our young people need. It provides the opportunity for the children to engage in activities to get them going for the day. That hour before school is stress free. There is no need for hurrying or worrying about being late - because they are already there! They also have a nutritious breakfast and always start with a smile on their faces, ready for learning”.

Data collected at Avondale primary school adds further weight to these findings. Staff at Avondale analysed data for children attending breakfast club over an academic year. Out of 34 children who attended during 2005-06, 94 per cent had improved attendance compared with the year before. In terms of academic performance, 42 per cent showed improvements in their reading and 55 per cent in their writing.

This represents a significant improvement for all children at the breakfast club - especially for those who were targeted for free attendance.

One parent said she was particularly aware of her child’s confidence and enthusiasm since attending breakfast club. She said: “I can definitely say that my son’s enthusiasm for sport has been fuelled doing different sports and games. His confidence has definitely grown - how he feels about himself, in school, with his friends. He has really grown in confidence over the year.” Parents also recognised that the breakfast club provided an invaluable place to play and let off steam before school started.

For children, the most enjoyable aspect of going to the club was the activities - both the high-energy hall games and the quiet games. Second was the food, followed by spending time with friends. Making friends also factored into parent’s decision to take their children to breakfast club - who saw that it was a chance for them to mix with children from other year groups. Another factor was the relief in knowing their children were safe and looked after before school.

“They love it. They always ask me ‘Are we going to breakfast club?’. When I say no, they are disappointed. They just love the fact that they can play, then they get into the classroom and can start concentrating.

“I drop them off and I know they will be fine and I would be able to go, knowing they are safe, they are fine, they're happy and they're learning and enjoying themselves. It's taken a really big weight off my shoulders.”

Of all the factors given by parents for bringing their child/ren to breakfast club, “I have to go to work” was cited the most (88 per cent/ 35 parents). This reason was followed by: “It’s a safe place for my child to be before school” (43 per cent/17 parents). When this was examined further in the focus group, it was clear how important the breakfast club has been in allowing parents to go to work. Other parents commented on how they felt it had helped increase their career opportunities and how they could work without worrying about their child’s well-being. Several parents said it gave them flexibility.

The success of our breakfast clubs is clearly thanks to the staff who run them. This reflects positively on the partnership between the school and the play service - both parties supply staff. The qualified play service staff is very skilled in running the physical activities.

Within the play service, there is a senior staff member who coordinates breakfast clubs. She makes regular monitoring visits, oversees the budgets and collects attendance data. This role is important as it links the breakfast club to the wider provision of play in the borough - including professional development of staff, quality assurance and a focus on identifying children who will benefit from such provision. The importance of retaining a targeted approach for breakfast clubs is recognised by Paul Williamson, head of extended services: “Giving children a positive play experience before school helps them to relax and makes them happy. Compared to the chaotic and stressful experience many children have in the morning, this is an excellent start to the day.”

Further research

Other research also lends support to the positive impacts and importance of breakfast clubs. Through the now disbanded Children’s Fund, many breakfast clubs were funded and were included in the national evaluation of the Children’s Fund. The findings from this research highlighted how breakfast clubs were used by a higher percentage of children from single-parent families and those receiving means-tested benefits than homework or after school clubs. Breakfast clubs were popular up until the age of ten - but much less after (Edwards, A et al, 2006: 83).

North Tyneside council recently commissioned the university of Northumbria to compare the benefits of offering free food in schools at different times of the day. Their interim findings were: “They weren’t hungry, they had had their initial conversations with friends and the school day could start very efficiently and children could engage with learning straight away”. However, within the pilot schools, not all children, including those who are hard to reach, took up the free breakfast (Carr, S, 2007). This highlights the need to address issues that stop children’s ability to access such provision, including the adoption of targeted support. 

Research carried out by the School’s Food Trust found that average KS2 results were higher by 0.72 points in the year after the introduction of a breakfast club in 13 primary schools in deprived areas of London, compared with a less significant 0.27 point increase in nine control schools. Their findings also support the evidence that such clubs improve academic performance and punctuality at school (Stevens, L et al, 2008).

The way forward

Since carrying out this research, Kensington and Chelsea are rolling out breakfast clubs in every primary school in the boroughs. Twenty two schools now receive extended school’s funding to target pupils for attendance at breakfast clubs - but long-term sustainability could become an issue.

The success of our partnership between school staff and play workers is something we wish to continue and build on. It provides a mix of skills that benefit the children in a number of ways and promotes a fun and safe environment that also prepares the children for school.

Training for breakfast club staff remains a priority. This enables a pedagogical approach to breakfast club provision as well as ensuring knowledge and understanding of relevant policies. We have also identified the need to improve the information provided to parents on the breakfast club - so they are better informed about their child’s experience.

Our research provides robust evidence of the benefits breakfast clubs can provide for children in terms of learning, healthy eating, social skills and play opportunities. These benefits are cross across all the ECM outcomes. We will continue to prioritise the development of breakfast clubs in all our primary schools.

Sue Yardley managed the Children’s Fund in Kensington and Chelsea from 2004 until it closed in 2008. She is now a children’s participation manager for the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Taken from Every Child Matters

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References
Edwards, A, Barnes, M, Plewis, I and Morris, K et al (2006) Working to Prevent the Social Exclusion of Children and Young People, Final lessons from the National Evaluation of the Children’s Fund. University of Birmingham and Institute of Education.

 

Stevens, L et al (2008) The impact of primary school breakfast clubs in deprived areas of London. The School Food Trust.

 

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