At first sight it could easily be the food hall in a shopping centre or motorway service station, with its self-service counters and random combinations of tables, each one decorated with a small vase of flowers. Not even the clientele gives it away. A group of women sits chattering over coffee, while young mums steer their toddlers safely away from discarded trays. A group of teenagers walks through, grabbing a fruit juice from the dispensers before moving on. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is no public cafeteria. The scene is, in fact, Samworth Enterprise Academy, in Leicester, an all-through school for three to 16-year-olds. The innovative design of the school has placed the dining room – or restaurant, as it is called here – at its heart.
The Academy, located in one of the most socially deprived areas of the city, was conceived specifically with food and eating in mind. More than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals and every pupil receives free fruit each day.
On this particular morning, the mums eat breakfasts of tea and toast at one table, while at another a pupil sits hunched with his head down, his annoyed father in discussion with a teacher. The restaurant is also used as a meeting room and the three are talking about the boy's progress.
"In most schools you would go into an office to discuss your child but our parents would find that difficult and perhaps intimidating, especially if they hadn't had a good experience of school themselves," Pat Dubas, the principal, says. "Holding the meeting in the restaurant makes it more open somehow and less frightening."
The approach taken by Samworth is to be the focus of an academic study being carried out by the University of Leicester. Unlike most research into the impact of food on young people, this one will examine how it affects social skills and general personal development. The correlation may not be immediately obvious but Dubas is on to something here. By providing free tea and toast to any parents and pupils who want it every morning, she is encouraging an open-access policy, which promotes increased involvement and participation in school life and has led to reduced rates of truancy. As an added benefit, engagement with the school has pulled some families out of a dependency on benefits. Parents who participate in the day-to-day life at Samworth often take on voluntary, supervisory roles, which can lead to paid employment there.
"Parents can come in and stay for as long as they like," Dubas says. "Many can't afford to heat their homes so this offers them a chance to get warm and meet with others. Some of them are single parents and this may be the only adult conversation they have all day."
Sally Freer has three children, aged five, 10 and 11 years, at Samworth and works at the school as adult community learning champion, encouraging parents to do courses in literacy, numeracy and cookery. "A lot of people, including my own family, don't have a table at home, which is normally where families get together to have their meals and talk," she says.
"Through food, we try to create family time here in the morning by encouraging parents to come in with their children and have breakfast. We also encourage families to cook together and run classes on cooking with limited facilities, so whatever they have at home can be used to prepare a family meal. Pupils love this because they get to spend precious time with their parents, who often just push their children out of the door in the morning so they can go to work."
The research will be led by Professor Hilary Burgess, director of studies at the University of Leicester's School of Education. "The study will focus on the impact of food-based culture on the life of the school and the pupils who attend it," she says. "It will observe the school's social life, how students interact when they are eating and what skills they pick up in doing so.
"Some families do not attach a high priority to this and in many homes parents and children no longer sit down every day to eat together and have a conversation. But acquiring important skills, such as using a knife and fork, can have an impact on the way children respond and conduct themselves in school and their attitude in lessons. These are skills they will also take with them into the outside world and may improve their life chances."
Nick Lalli will conduct the research over three years for his PhD, by observing the life of the school, interviewing parents, pupils and staff, and carrying out surveys and questionnaires.
"Food has a huge role to play in personal and social development, including such aspects as promoting personal hygiene. The skills pupils pick up in school will impact on their relationships, their interactions within the community and will have a motivating effect on their lives generally," he says.
As a former further education lecturer, Lalli has seen the impact that poor attitudes to food and eating can have. "I had to ban crisps and fizzy drinks from my classes at college because that's all the young people seemed to eat or drink," he says. "It wasn't long before they themselves noticed that their attention spans improved because they weren't on a sugar rush, so they were enjoying learning and that in turn led to a rise in self-esteem and confidence."
Neil Brittain, whose two children aged 12 and 16 years attend Samworth, is a regular at the parents' morning breakfast gatherings and is looking forward to participating in the study. That its school has attracted interest from a university is considered a coup for the community. "When I was growing up, families used to eat together and have conversations, regardless of how socially disadvantaged they were," he says. "The pressures of life seem different now and there are more single parents juggling work and home and trying to make ends meet. Generally, you can tell which children have eaten breakfast because by 11am they're the ones still listening and learning, instead of drifting or nodding off. If you get children into the habit of having breakfast then they have a better chance in life." He believes there are certain cycles in communities such as this that need to be broken.
The impact on parents of the school's open-door policy has been immeasurable, he says. "Being able to come in with the kids in the morning offers these parents some consistency in their lives, somewhere warm to sit for an hour or two and share their problems," he says.
"It is a relaxed environment where they know they don't have to cope alone as someone will be looking out for them. There is a feeling of community and safety, which is important. It's amazing that you can achieve something so wonderful for people with little more than tea and toast."