Schools giving exam students free breakfasts to help those struggling with cost of living crisis

Exclusive: Pupils going hungry into high-stakes exams was ‘certainly a worry’ this year, school leader says

Zoe Tidman
Saturday 04 June 2022 14:36
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<p>Adeyfield Academy has been putting on a free breakfast for all students before exams</p>

Adeyfield Academy has been putting on a free breakfast for all students before exams

Schools have started giving free breakfasts to all students taking exams, in an effort to support the rising number of families struggling with the cost of living crisis.

Headteachers told The Independent they had gone “over and above” this year by expanding free food offerings – usually only available for disadvantaged pupils – to cover all those taking GCSEs and A-levels.

It comes as the rising cost of living is stretching household budgets, forcing more people to turn to food banks. There have also been calls for the eligibility criteria for free school meals to be relaxed to help more families in need – a move the government has dismissed.

Headteachers said they had decided for the first time to offer free breakfasts to pupils taking exams, to ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

Pepe DiIasio, who is head of a secondary school outside Sheffield, said the possibility of children going into high-stakes exams while hungry was “certainly a worry” at the moment.

This year, every student taking an exam will be offered a free breakfast that day.

“What has been really appreciated by the students is having the opportunity to have a really good breakfast, a really healthy start to the day,” the Wales High School headteacher said.

Cost of living: how to get help

The cost of living crisis has touched every corner of the UK, pushing families to the brink with rising food and fuel prices.

  • The Independent has asked experts to explain small ways you can stretch your money, including managing debt and obtaining items for free.
  • If you need to access a food bank, find your local council’s website using gov.uk and then use the local authority’s site to locate your nearest centre. The Trussell Trust, which runs many foodbanks, has a similar tool.
  • Citizens Advice provides free help to people in need. The organisation can help you find grants or benefits, or advise on rent, debt and budgeting.
  • If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

The breakfast club, which also sees students go over their final preparations for the exams, had previously only been available to disadvantaged students.

“We’ve gone over and above this year,” Mr DiIasio said, adding: “We call it a warm-up, and it’s just literally preparing for the exam so we know they’re good to go before the papers are out and before they go to the exam hall.”

In Hertfordshire, the same thing is happening at Adeyfield Academy. For the first time, all children taking their GCSE and A-levels can get a free breakfast before their exams.

Dawn Mason, the school’s principal, told The Independent it aims to provide “all the kinds of brain power that you would hope students would have before going into a big exam”.

Part of the breakfast put on at Adeyfield Academy before exams

The school in Hemel Hempstead sits in an area of relatively high deprivation, with an estimated 56 per cent of year 1 students eligible for free school meals, according to its leaders.

It recently carried out research to find out how families are coping with school-related costs.

“We realised there’s probably a lot more students that are going under the radar that don’t officially fall into this category,” its vice-principal Selma Riley said.

To ensure no one is hungry while taking important exams, Adeyfield Academy is offering pancakes, cereal, bagels and fruit in school for its students – as well as a “pep talk” by a subject teacher.

“We just needed to do everything we could to give them the best chance and think about those marginal gains,” Ms Riley said.

Even before the cost of living crisis escalated, poorer pupils were generally further behind on learning than their better-off peers after being hit the hardest academically by the disruption to education brought about by the Covid pandemic.

This could end up driving a “step change” decline in social mobility, according to a Sutton Trust report released on Wednesday.

Ms Mason, principal of Adeyfield Academy, said: “We just want to go the extra mile, particularly in light of where we are nationally.”

An Academies Enterprise Trust spokesperson told The Independent that most of its 20 secondary schools across England were also offering porridge, toast and bananas to pupils taking exams this year.

“For many of our schools, this is something they have done in previous years, but for others this is the first time, in recognition of the challenges that students have faced post-pandemic, and the reality that some of our families are facing in terms of making ends meet,” they said.

In Oxfordshire, Sam Baker, assistant headteacher at The Copper School, said his secondary school had been providing pre-exam breakfasts for years. But this time round, it has seen the highest turnout to date.

“It’s been the biggest group, and we’re definitely having no leftovers at the end,” he told The Independent. “We know that there will be families who are just about managing, and actually having the opportunity to get a good, protein-filled, tasty breakfast in the morning is appreciated.”

A government spokesperson said: “A nutritious breakfast at the start of the day can help a pupil’s attainment and behaviour. Our National School Breakfast Programme, backed by up to £24m for two years, is helping children in disadvantaged areas start the day with a healthy meal.

“We encourage all schools to use their increased core schools and recovery funding to help children and young people according to their needs, including with breakfast clubs.”

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