Terence Kealey is author of a new Institute of Economic Affairs report, Eating or Meeting? The Dubious Case for Free School Breakfasts.
The Conservative Party went into the last election with a manifesto commitment to provide free breakfasts for all school children.
The Party was inspired by a study performed by three charities: the Institute for Fiscal Studies (the famous economic research outfit), Magic Breakfast (which provides free breakfasts to school children), and the Education Endowment Foundation (launched with a grant of £125 million from government to conduct research into education).
These charities got together to provide free breakfasts to a group of primary schools, finding – most dramatically – that such breakfasts improved the children’s educational outcome by the equivalent of two months’ extra tuition.
This was a most exciting finding, which confirms the findings of other investigators. And the experiment was well-conducted. So it is credible. Yet the charities then spoilt everything by claiming their free breakfasts were alleviating hunger.
What hunger? What alleviation? The researchers found that only 12 per cent of children were taking up the free breakfasts, and those children had previously been eating breakfast at home. The free breakfasts were not, therefore, increasing eating in the morning, they were only shifting it from home to school.
Further, the children most likely to eat the free breakfasts were poor children, yet the children whose educational outcome was most improved were the middle class children.
What the charities had actually shown is that if children can precede the school day with half an hour’s play and fun, then they relax, disturb their peers less, and study better. It’s not the “breakfast” in the “breakfast club” that is magic, it’s the “club”.
This is, therefore, a genuinely important advance, one that schools and governments need to internalise as they strive to improve our children’s education. But by misrepresenting their findings as an expression of hunger, not of stress, the three charities have deprived teachers and parents of the data they need if they are to improve the children’s education.
The propaganda around breakfast, which is fuelled by the food manufacturers, is dangerous. Contrary to myth, breakfast always increases the number of calories a person eats. There is no mysterious mechanism by which the consumption of breakfast lowers the numbers of calories a person eats later in the day.
Thus, since the great public health problem of our day is obesity, and since obesity is a particular problem for working class children, it is no trivial matter to encourage children to eat in the mornings.
Obviously if children are hungry in the mornings, they must be fed. In which case, ironically, the worst breakfast they could receive was the one the three charities provided: a sugar and carbohydrate-fest in the shape of orange juice, cereals, bagels and porridge. If children are to eat in the mornings, they should be supplied with healthy foods such as eggs or whole fruit.
Government advice about food over the last few decades has been dire. Whereas high-fat low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diets are the healthiest, the government has instead told us to eat high-carbohydrate low-fat diets.
Further, it has pushed deadly trans fats (in such products as margarine), while urging us to avoid healthy foods, such as eggs, on the false claim that cholesterol in the diet is dangerous. It is not. Now the government has added breakfast to its list of dietary errors.
The shock election result forced the Tory Party into abandoning most of its unpopular plans, and the free breakfast plan was unpopular because it was going to be funded by withdrawing free school lunches. So it has been shelved. But a future government may reinstate the breakfast proposal and thus aggravate childhood obesity while overlooking the real reason pre-school clubs are useful.
Breakfast is a dangerous meal because the hormones that wake us in the mornings also raise our blood sugar levels: eating on top of those sugar peaks is not safe. Further, the hormone secretions that breakfast itself provokes will also aggravate hunger later in the day. The cereal manufacturers and fruit juice suppliers won’t tell us that, so it’s a shame the Government won’t either.