“At least half a million children in the UK arrive at school each day too hungry or malnourished to learn,” says Miriam Simpson.
It's a sobering figure. And like many figures that relate to UK poverty, it’s amazing to think such a thing is possible in 2019.
“I meet with Sheffield headteachers every day who tell me that they have children in their schools who come to school hungry because they haven’t eaten or have eaten an inadequate breakfast such as chocolate, crisps, energy drinks,” Miriam adds.
“These schools have to feed children throughout the morning with whatever they have; often this is teachers spending their own money or bringing food in for children, and many headteachers have told me that they know that, for some children, their free school lunch is their only meal of the day.”
Now a national charity is seeking to knock hunger among schoolchildren on the head, launching a nationwide programme to offer free breakfasts to kids in schools that need it.
And Miriam, a school partner with the new National School Breakfast Programme, is leading the cause in the city, working with schools across Sheffield to identify the children that need their help.
“The aim of the programme is that no child comes to school too hungry to learn," says Miriam, who lives in Woodseats and was previously a primary school teacher.
“This programme was set up because research shows that disadvantaged pupils offered a healthy breakfast at school are more settled and ready to learn, behave better, concentrate better, and make an average of two months additional progress per year compared to children in schools with no breakfast provision. It showed a direct link between the breakfast habits of children and their educational attainment. For schools, this amount of extra progress is huge; very few other interventions could testify to having the same results.
“The research, conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation in 2016, suggests that ‘it was not whether more pupils ate breakfast at all that made the difference, but whether more were going to the school breakfast club. It may be that school breakfasts are more nutritious, or that attending the club effectively prepares pupils for learning.”
This new programme is funded by the Department for Education across the UK, using revenue from the sugar tax, and delivered by the charities Family Action and Magic Breakfast, with teams in three regions; north, central and south England.
It is currently working to support 1,775 schools in key disadvantaged communities across the country to improve access to healthy breakfasts and learning. Schools benefiting from the programme will be offered customised support according to their situation and needs, including start-up grants and deliveries of healthy food to ensure every child who needs a breakfast receives one. All schools will receive advice and support from one of the programme’s school partners to help them develop new and effective ways of improving breakfast provision and maximise the number of children reached.
“The programme launched in April 2018 but the majority of schools in Sheffield have come on board since last September,” Miriams says.
“Nationally, the number of children we are helping to feed a healthy breakfast to every day is going up every week!
“In Sheffield, we have had interest from over 30 schools both primary and secondary, and currently support 13 schools with their breakfast provision.
“£26 million was announced by the education secretary in March 2018 for the National School Breakfast Programme to set up or improve breakfast provision for pupils in England. This is money from the soft drinks industry levy. We are overjoyed that we can use this funding to make a real difference to young people’s lives, and help to ensure no child is too hungry to learn.
“Many schools offer a breakfast club before school but for vulnerable and disadvantaged children this can present a number of barriers, such as timing, or cost, so we give schools advice on offering food in a way that can reach everyone, for example by eating breakfast in the classroom together or handing out bagels on the playground just before school starts.
“As an ex-teacher, I know the strain that schools are under with diminishing budgets and increasing demands put upon them. As a team we want to help teachers and school leaders provide the best possible start for their children.”
Visit family-action.org.uk for further details.