Breakfast clubs found to boost primary pupils’ reading writing and maths results

Breakfast clubs that offer pupils in primary schools a free and nutritious meal before school can boost their reading, writing and maths results by the equivalent of two months’ progress over the course of a year, according to the results of a randomised controlled trial published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

106 English primary schools with higher than average numbers of disadvantaged pupils took part in the trial, which was delivered to 8,600 pupils by the charity Magic Breakfast. Over the course of an academic year, parents were encouraged to send their child to free breakfast clubs before registration. The children were able to choose between cereals, wheat biscuits, porridge and bagels.

The independent evaluation by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Children’s Bureau found that Year 2 children in schools with a breakfast club made two additional months’ progress in reading, writing and maths compared with a similar group whose schools were not given support to offer breakfast.

The evaluators reported that the pupils’ concentration and behaviour improved too. This suggests that breakfast clubs provide an opportunity to improve outcomes for all children, not just those who actually attend, by creating better classroom environments. The impact for Year 6 pupils was slightly smaller but still promising.

The results suggest that for pupils in relatively disadvantaged schools it is attending the breakfast club, not just eating breakfast, which leads to academic improvements. This could be due to the nutritional benefits of the breakfast itself, or the social or educational benefits of the breakfast club environment.

The 2013 School Food Plan recommended breakfast clubs should be set up in schools with the highest levels of deprivation. This evaluation suggests there might be benefits to an expansion of the policy using a free, universal and before-school model - and that this is something that schools should also consider in terms of their own spending priorities.

The EEF has published evaluations of three more trials today, all designed to find out what does and doesn’t work when it comes to teaching and learning.

1,850 children in 30 primary schools took part in a trial of ReflectED, a programme developed by Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. Children kept a record of their learning through photographs, written notes and audio recordings made using Evernote software. They were encouraged to review these records over time and discuss them with their teachers and classmates.

The evaluators from the University of Manchester found promising evidence that the 10 year olds who took part in the ReflectED programme made additional progress in maths compared to the pupils who did not participate. These results were from a small trial so further research is required to determine whether a similar impact might be achieved in other schools.

Results from two other trials are published today:

  • A pilot trial of ThinkForward, a coaching programme to support GCSE pupils at risk of not being in education, employment or training after school, was designed to find out if this particular method of coaching could be tested at a larger scale. The evaluators from the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Essex found that more work is needed to develop a model that would produce robust results in a randomised trial. A small-scale assessment of the impact of the programme was carried out at the same time, but did not find any evidence that it improved outcomes.
  • An evaluation by The Institute for Effective Education of The Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Project (TEEP), a whole-school professional development course delivered by outstanding teachers, found it didn’t have an impact on pupils in low performing schools’ GCSE English and Maths results. Teachers received three full-days of training on topics including pedagogical approaches, phases of learning and effective teacher behaviours. The evaluation did not measure whether TEEP had an impact on younger students or the level of implementation across the school the following year.

The EEF has also published an evaluation of a form of Project-Based Learning, an approach to lower secondary teaching where learning is organised around a single project, driven by an essential question that students aim to answer. In this trial, each project contained significant academic content and involved students creating a high quality product or exhibition that was shown to an external audience. For example, pupils explored the history of significant people from their local area (covering history, writing and art), published a book and held a launch for local community members.

Evaluators from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University and York Trials Unit found from a randomised controlled trial in 24 schools that the intervention had no clear impact on pupils’ levels of literacy, although participating schools pointed to a number of other benefits of the programme like improved teamwork and communication skills.

The results of an evaluation of Online Reading Support was published at the end of October. 

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation and of the Sutton Trust, said:

“It is good to see the benefit that well-run breakfast clubs can have on children’s attainment. These new reports highlight the importance of EEF trialling programmes to test their impact. All of today’s reports will add to the EEF’s growing source of robust and reliable evidence that teachers and school leaders can use to help close the attainment gap.”

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The fact that there are children that will go to school hungry today is a national scandal. Offering free breakfasts at school is a relatively cheap and straightforward way of alleviating this symptom of disadvantage. Many schools across the country already offer some sort of breakfast provision. “That’s why the findings from today’s evaluation report are so encouraging. Not only does a good breakfast provide all young people with a nutritious start to the day, but well-run breakfast clubs have the potential to boost attainment and behaviour too. “The government has committed to spending £10m a year on healthy breakfast clubs, as part of their plan to tackle childhood obesity. They, and school leaders more generally, should consider using a free, universal and before-school model to benefit attainment as well.”

Carmel McConnell, founder and Chief Executive of Magic Breakfast, said:

“This important, independent research shows a significant boost to attainment resulting directly from Magic Breakfast provision. If we as a nation are serious about tackling educational underachievement, this evidence shows the Magic Breakfast model of low or no cost nutritious school breakfasts, with the targeting of those most in need, really works. It's time to embed this approach and gain that same classroom success for every vulnerable child.”

Sam Bailey, Principal of the Forest Academy in Barnsley, said:

"Since opening a Magic Breakfast club in our school, we’ve really noticed the positive effect it’s had on our school community. “Pupil behaviour has improved dramatically and attitudes to learning are the best they have ever been. We are blessed with alert, enthusiastic, determined and hard-working pupils who are ready to learn. Academic standards have been raised too and we’ve seen significant improvements in every year group.“

Magic Breakfast

Magic Breakfast

Evaluating the effectiveness of school breakfast provision

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The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a grant-making charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus–The Private Equity Foundation), with a £125m founding grant from the Department for Education. The EEF is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £80 million to 133 projects working with over 850,000 pupils in over 8,300 schools across England. The EEF and Sutton Trust are, together, the government-designated What Works Centre for Education.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit and its Early Years companion are accessible summaries of educational research developed by the EEF in collaboration with the Sutton Trust and a team of academics at Durham University led by Professor Steve Higgins. The Toolkits cover 46 topics and summarises research from over 11,500 studies. The Toolkits are a live resources which are regularly updated.

Magic Breakfast is a registered charity in the UK ensuring that no child is too hungry to learn through the provision of healthy breakfast food and expert support to schools. The charity support schools with 35% or more pupils eligible for free school meals, or with 50% Ever 6 FSM, delivering nutritious food and bespoke advice on the best way to reach every vulnerable child. Magic Breakfast works with 467 primary, secondary and special educational needs schools, plus pupil referral units, to make sure that over 31,000 children can benefit fully from their morning lessons.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies is Britain’s leading independent microeconomic research institute. To contact the authors of the Magic Breakfast evaluation directly, please contact the IFS press office on 020 7291 4818.

In August 2016, the government published Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action. It included details of plans to invest £10million a year into school healthy breakfast clubs.