‘A full tummy means pupils can concentrate.’ But is Labour’s school breakfast plan bold enough? | Primary schools

It is just gone 7.30am at The Priory primary school in Wednesbury, near Walsall, and already a dozen or so children – known as the “early birds” – have been dropped off so their parents can get to work. Some are jumping through hula hoops and others are just chatting at breakfast tables covered with smart red gingham cloths. The welcoming smell of toast fills the hall as more arrive.

This corner of the West Midlands is one of the most deprived parts of England, where poverty is rife. If teachers and staff here were not on hand to provide their charges with a good breakfast, they know many would arrive with empty stomachs, and then be unable to focus in class.

“It is so important,” says Elaine Dickenson, the school business manager who is overseeing the group. She sees the difference it makes to behaviour every day. “A full tummy means they can concentrate much better during lessons and for the rest of the day.” Dickenson is also able, from years of experience, to spot those in particular need. “You just know,” she says, “from the way they are dressed. You just have this sixth sense.”

Soon plates piled high with buttered toast and bagels arrive at every table and the children tuck in. There are hot baked beans, porridge, a choice of cereals, and seconds if they want them. Lesley Melia, who is the school’s breakfast club lead, says it is also a chance to help less confident children settle. A few days before, one or two had been getting “a bit panicky” about their Sats exams and she used the time with them to reassure them and say “you can only do your best”.

Elaine Dickenson, school business manager: ‘A full tummy means they can concentrate much better during lessons.’ Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Observer

The school works with the charity Magic Breakfast, which provides the food and arranges deliveries for 200,000 children across England and Scotland. The school, meanwhile, pays for the extra staff time from its own budget.

Breakfast at The Priory doesn’t end with the early birds. What sets Magic Breakfast’s preferred model apart is that it is not simply a one-off “breakfast club” – which pupils either turn up for or they don’t – but a series of offers throughout the first part of the day, in classrooms, corridors, and quiet rooms for those needing more individual attention, to maximise take-up. At The Priory, the idea that children learn best when well fed, proven in numerous academic studies, is a core school philosophy.

The headteacher, Philip Butcher, says he has never known so many children coming to school hungry, making a flexible offer ever more important. For those arriving just before lessons, there is what’s called “classroom provision”, where bagels and toast appear at desks. Some 363 out of the 453 children are opting to have breakfast this way at the The Priory this year.

There is also a special “nurturing club” for a small group who require extra help and attention with their first meal of the day. And throughout the morning, for those who arrive late, there are more plates of bread and bagels left outside the school office, which even staff are encouraged to eat.

Butcher and his staff are pleased that one of the Labour party’s big ideas in its forthcoming general election manifesto will be to provide “free breakfast clubs” in every primary school in England, not just, as is the case at present, in the areas with the highest levels of deprivation.

The party’s breakfast club policy, costed at £365m a year, is one of Labour’s bigger, bolder ideas in what many see as a fairly cautious set of policy offers, constrained by lack of money.

So, with poverty rising, a lot rests on it working, particularly as the party has ruled out matching London’s free school lunches for all, and has said it will not end the two-child benefit limit, despite evidence that it plunges hundreds of thousands of children into even greater deprivation.

As the election approaches, questions are inevitably being asked about how Labour will make the policy work, who will be involved, and whether it will live up to its billing. Many schools already provide breakfast clubs, either with help from organisations like Magic Breakfast or through the government’s national school breakfast scheme, which is available in areas with high levels of deprivation until July 2025. But turning it into a national scheme for all primaries in a Labour first term is a different matter.

Lindsey MacDonald, the chief executive of Magic Breakfast, has her concerns. She has had discussions with shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson about Labour’s plans. But despite running one of the country’s biggest providers she does not yet know how the new national system will be set up, or whether Magic Breakfast, with all its experience, will be asked to take part.

What she is sure of, however, is what works – and what doesn’t.

Pupils line up for porridge at The Priory Primary School in Wednesbury, West Midlands. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Observer

“To reach most children, and make the biggest difference to schools, it is vital that different models are made available to best meet the needs of all children, schools and the communities in which they are based. We want to see breakfast provision, not just breakfast clubs,” she says.

“This means, where viable, offering classroom provision, nurture rooms, late provision and ‘grab ’n’ go’ offers, so no child is too hungry to learn.

“In turn, this will help school leaders to address challenges around attendance, class behaviour, learning, mental and physical health, and issues around job satisfaction and teaching staff retention in schools.”

Phillipson told the Observer that a Labour government “will be working to deliver free breakfast clubs for every primary school in England from day one of a future Labour government.”

She added that schools would have “the flexibility to deliver breakfast clubs in a way which best meets the needs of their pupils and families”.

Butcher says those needs are growing all the time. He has now set up an arrangement with the nearby factory of bakery Warburtons, which gives out free loaves of bread every Wednesday for his pupils to take home after school. “It is just part of what we do,” he says, “going above and beyond.”

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