By Alysa Remtulla
"I feel tired and stressed, like I can't concentrate on lessons." These are the words of a child describing what it's like to sit in the classroom with an empty tummy – a painful reality for 1.8 million school age children in the UK.
Pre-pandemic, six children in every class of 30 were living in a family experiencing food insecurity. This means they were forced to cut back on the amount and types of food they ate, and many were skipping meals altogether. As families have been hit by the economic impact of covid, this number will have risen.
Classroom hunger drives an educational attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. It's one of the reasons why children from disadvantaged backgrounds leave secondary school over 18 months behind their better off peers and are less likely to go on to further or higher education or find highly paid, secure work. Disadvantaged children have also been worst affected by covid school closures, with less access to online learning, a computer or a stable internet connection.
Our charity, Magic Breakfast, has been focused on tackling classroom hunger for 20 years. We provide healthy breakfast food and expert support to schools with high levels of disadvantage, often for children who arrive at school without having had anything substantial to eat since their lunch the day before.
After introducing school breakfast at their school, teachers tell us that they notice that children's energy, concentration and behaviour in the classroom improve. A more formal, independent evaluation of our work found that Key Stage 1 pupils in schools with a universal free school breakfast provision made an additional two months progress in reading, writing and maths over the course of an academic year, compared to children in schools with no such breakfast provision.
But charities cannot solve the problem of classroom hunger alone. We need government action to ensure no child starts the day too hungry to learn. They have already done some great work through the National School Breakfast Programme – which currently supports over 1,800 schools and is implemented by Magic Breakfast with Family Action. But the programme reaches fewer than 30% of the schools who need it and this funding will run out in March 2021. We need a permanent solution to help all children at risk of hunger in the morning.
That is why Magic Breakfast is working with Feeding Britain and Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck on a school breakfast bill. This builds on, and scales-up, current government funding for school breakfasts. It would guarantee all schools with high levels of disadvantage the support they need to provide a free school breakfast to children. Schools would receive extra funding to cover the costs of food, deliveries and staffing.
If successful, the bill would ensure that all children in England start the day settled and ready to learn, allowing every child in the country to reach their full potential. It would boost educational attainment and contribute to greater economic productivity and growth.
We’ve been inspired by the recent groundswell in public support for tackling child hunger, which is in no small part down to Marcus Rashford's amazing activism on the issue. Now we need to translate that support into action. The bill, which is due to be presented to parliament next week, is supported by over 50 MPs from all parties. We urgently need to continue to grow this number for the Bill to have a chance of passing.
Alysa Remtulla is head of Policy and Campaigns at Magic Breakfast, the UK's leading charity providing healthy breakfasts to schoolchildren. The charity is asking people to write to their local MP to support the school breakfast bill.
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