Alan Mak is MP for Havant and former President & Trustee of Magic Breakfast, which provides healthy school breakfasts to hungry and malnourished children in disadvantaged areas of the UK.
Renewing the National School Breakfast Programme must be a key priority for a One Nation Conservative Government.
When our next Party leader and Prime Minister is announced tomorrow morning, delivering a successful Brexit will rightly be his top priority. The debate around what success looks like is currently dominated by economic yardsticks – will our GDP rise? Can we sign a trade deal with America? Is our growth rate sustainable?
An expanding economy is certainly a vital driver and indicator of Britain’s post-Brexit future, and I have previously written extensively on this site about why leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution is key to our prosperity in the years ahead.
However, our next Government must also tackle some of the engrained social challenges that affect communities across the country, especially in inner-city and post-industrial areas. Britain after Brexit must feel different on the ground for families, rather than just look different on economists’ spreadsheets.
Our approach to ending child hunger and tackling child poverty are prime examples of what needs to change – and must be at the very top of the next Prime Minister’s to do list. The child hunger challenge is stark. Around 1.8 million school age children in the UK are at risk of hunger – five pupils in every class of 30, or 17 per cent of all schoolchildren across the country. Hunger affects children’s concentration and behaviour in the classroom, attainment in exams and ultimately their life chances, employability and wider social mobility. Hungry children miss out on success at school, which in turn holds them back for the rest of their lives, often leading to unemployment and poverty.
Magic Breakfast is a leading charity working hard to tackle this issue head on, and currently feeds over 40,000 children every school day in 481 schools. In the last school year, the charity provided over 7.8 million breakfasts.
Their work delivers results: independent research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that pupils in primary schools offering a free, nutritious breakfast boosted their reading, writing and maths results by an average of two months’ progress over the course of a year compared to children in schools with no such breakfast provision.
The improvements at a primary school in Barnsley, South Yorkshire show the transformative impact of breakfast clubs on the ground. The school launched a breakfast club in September 2014, with Magic Breakfast’s support. 170 out of 220 children attended breakfast in the first week. The headteacher says the breakfast provision had a major impact on the school across a range of areas including lateness, behavioural incidents and improved relationships between staff and children and staff and parents.
The school also saw a clear improvement in educational attainment with exam results improving dramatically in just one year, with 83 per cent of Key Stage 2 pupils reaching the expected standard compared to 33 per cent the year before, and 85 per cent of Year 1 pupils achieving a pass in phonics compared to 40% the year before. Similar progress has been achieved in other schools across the country.
When I first started working with Magic Breakfast over a decade ago, the charity relied entirely on donations, received no Government funding, and operated with a full-time staff of just three people. Nonetheless, it delivered inspirational results and impact, yet we knew even then that child hunger could only be ended if we had both sustained funding and political will from the top for our social mission. After years of lobbying both local government (including Boris Johnson as Mayor of London) and the Department for Education, the Government launched the National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP) to ensure children in the most disadvantaged areas of England have access to a healthy breakfast at school, based on the Magic Breakfast model.
The NSBP has proved to be a big success. It provides a free nutritious breakfast in over 1,775 schools every school day, feeding more than 280,000 children daily including 115,000 pupil premium pupils. In a typical week, the Programme delivers 624,000 bagels, 7,224 boxes of cereal and 260kg of porridge oats. A school supported by NSBP that had a level of pupil lateness at double the national average has seen a significant improvement in attendance now that breakfast bagels are now served in the hall, playground and at the three school entrances, ensuring that 95 per cent of children pass a bagel station on the way into school.
Funding for the Programme is currently scheduled to end in March 2020, and the incoming Prime Minster should make an early decision to renew it to maintain the momentum of this very successful initiative. Renewal will cost around £12 million a year, reassure schools, and prevent hundreds of thousands of children from falling hungry in the morning and failing in the classroom. It will also mean our Party’s social mission to improve the education and life chances of our young people continues.
Delivering Brexit and firing up our economy are all vital to the success of our next Prime Minister and our Party. But we need a powerful domestic agenda too, which signals our Government’s One Nation values and our determination that after Brexit the fruits of economic success will be felt in every community and region of the country. By investing in school breakfast clubs, we give our children fuel for learning at school and send the strongest possible signal that we are committed to building a fairer society by ending child hunger and poverty.