Free school breakfasts are on the agenda for thousands of pupils - as growing numbers of authorities act to combat them becoming hungry during the day and unable to concentrate in class.
Blackpool became the first authority in England today to provide free breakfasts for all primary school pupils as teachers expressed growing concern about the impact the recession was having on children’s eating habits.
It was followed by the launch of a scheme in London to provide a further 50 schools with free breakfasts for every child.
Authorities around the country are coming under pressure from teachers’ leaders to combat the effects of rising poverty by making sure children start the day with a square meal.
In Blackpool, one school, Devonshire primary, saw all its 500 pupils take advantage of the offer of a breakfast including fruit, yoghurt, toast, bagels, cereal bars and juice followed by free milk at morning break time.
Neil Hodgkins, the school’s headteacher, said: “I think it may have been the novelty of the scheme today but we expect large numbers to come in in future.
“We’re in an area of social deprivation and we have been providing things like bits of toast before - but we expect this will have a very beneficial effect on their learning to avoid them going hungry.
“It will also improve things like punctuality and communication skills as pupils come in at 8.40am for the breakfast and chat to each other before class.”
Simon Blackburn, the leader of the council, said: “The launch of this scheme is the culmination of a great deal of hard work to ensure that the children of Blackpool get the best possible start to their day and are able to maximise their ability to succeed in school.”
According to teachers’ leaders, the boost to school breakfast cannot come too soon. A survey by the Children’s Society revealed cases where pupils were spotted stealing toast because they were so hungry and another case where two girls were spotted sharing a packed lunch in the toilets because only one of them had enough money to buy food. In addition, two out of three teachers reported giving pupils food or buying them a meal to avoid them going hungry.
They praised Blackpool for making the breakfasts available free to all children since the Children’s Society survey showed one in four pupils entitled to free school meals were shunning them because they were too embarrassed to admit to being poor.
The Blackpool scheme was launched on the same day as an initiative in London which has seen Mayor Boris Johnson support the provision of free breakfast to 50 schools by the charity Magic Breakfast. The Mayor’s £650,000 scheme will provide bagels, cereals and juice to around 5,000 children.
Mr Johnson said: “A nutritious breakfast is the best way to prepare our kids for a day of school.”
In Wales, too, pupils in primary schools are entitled to a free breakfast courtesy of a £12.7 million grant from the Welsh government. More than three-quarters of primary schools are participating in the scheme,
A study last summer found the provision of free school dinners to pupils in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton helped close the gap in test results between rich and poor students.
Steve Iredale, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the Blackpool scheme would have a “huge impact”. “This is an issue on which central government and local government have got to sit down and act and we would be delighted to work with them on it.”