Wake up to snap, crackle and propaganda

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The Independent Online
CONSIDER the concept of breakfast. Unlike any other episode in the day, breakfast is the symbolic point of entry, the moment when mood and metabolism meet the outside world.

Britain is divided between those who fast and those who break. Breakfast bars are inscribed in domestic architecture as a ledge for brief consumption. Like the parlour and the dinette, the space signifies the status of eating as a social act.

Breakfast has been added to the almanac of professionals with surplus expense accounts, LA Law types conferring over crushed oranges and pressed linen. Like Rupert, whose 1994 annual shows the bear family in pinnies and woollies gathered around a table-cloth, cups and saucers, sugar bowl with lid.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is surely a Rupert Bear freak. His recent injunction that parents breakfast their children is impertinently placed in a back-to-basics crusade less interested in breakfast as food than as propaganda. It was apparently improvised on the back of the Parents' Charter, due to be posted next month, which is likely to be more an encyclical about responsibility than rights in the education service.

Recent, riveting, statistics indicate that almost two-thirds of children eschew the entire breakfast event. A survey, published last October, by a school catering company of 150 schools and 114,000 pupils showed that 58 per cent of children do not have breakfast. If you were to consult adults, you might find a very similar spread - showing that breakfast habits have little to do with either parents or poverty.

My own conversations this week with about 50 children aged between 11 and 14 in cosmopolitan Northern comprehensives - where half are entitled to free dinners and half have unemployed parents - confirm the existence of diverse strategies.

About half went without breakfast. Their reasoning was impeccable - they didn't feel like it. About a third woke up by themselves, a third depended on their mothers to wake them, and the rest were woken by their fathers, brothers and sisters. One girl treated herself and her family to poached eggs; the rest relied on cereals, toast and drinks. About half watched Channel 4's The Big Breakfast.

Two-thirds had their clothes arranged by mothers and half the girls were able to iron their own clothes. Half left the house with someone still in bed. About a third got someone else up. All of them felt able to exercise responsibility for getting ready for school. 'This is life, real life, and part of life is being responsible,' said a teacher.

Some children complained about their mothers' interference. 'My mam makes a mess of it,' said one boy. He knew exactly where he had put his shoes and school tie the night before, and his mother ruined his system by tidying up.

One boy explained that his mother laid out pounds 1.50 a day for his bus fares and food. By his own swift arithmetic, he reckoned she spent pounds 500 last year getting him to school. School was an expensive item. It worried his mother.

Did that worry the children? Their hands shot up, yes, they worried about their parents' worries. These children proposed that Mr Patten could help their parents by providing school buses and free dinners.

Does school give children the care and courtesy they enjoy at home? One 13-year-old girl - of home-owning, car-owning, professional parents - did not feel like breakfast when she was roused around 7am. 'I'm never hungry then,' she explained. But she is by the time she arrives at school after more than half an hour of travelling. 'I stand by the door and shiver till somebody lets us in. But the teachers are all inside. It is stingy. They go into the staff room and make themselves cups of tea and wander about. And they've got a kitchen.'

She reckoned the school was 'mean' for not even opening up the canteen. 'They could supply us with a drink for 10p - they'd never give us it free]'

Her complaint exemplified children's consciousness of institutional indifference.

But 'parents must support the standards set by schools', Mr Patten has said, sounding like St Trinian's Margaret Rutherford when she chides the hapless Alastair Sim about the digestive habits of the 'infant animal'. Her grandiosity, however, carried sympathy, where Mr Patten offers only contempt. It seems more important for him to chastise a few parents while subjecting schoolchildren to a discipline of discomfort.