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A great start to the day – and the year

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2013

Blackpool made national headlines earlier this year when it launched a pilot project to provide universal free breakfasts for primary school children. PSE hears from council leader Simon Blackburn, the driving force behind the idea, about the hoped-for benefits in terms of attendance, timeliness, behaviour and attainment.

Since the start of this school term in January, all 12,000 primary school children in Blackpool have been getting free breakfasts of cereal or toast, milk, fruit juice and more.

The three-month pilot project, which council leader Simon Blackburn hopes to make permanent if an evaluation shows it as a success, is costing £700,000. Adopting it on a permanent basis would cost an estimated £2.1m a year, although Blackburn is interested in going beyond that to offer breakfasts to secondary school pupils, and making school lunches universally free.

We asked him whether a particular piece of research prompted his decision to push for this, or whether he just felt it was the right thing to do when so many children are turning up at school hungry.

He explained: “Going back three years, when I was elected as leader of the Labour group in Blackpool, I read some work around universal school lunches and felt there was some fairly compelling evidence that the benefits of everyone eating at the same time and having that degree of universality – in a place that already has a high number of people on free schools meals – would mean the costs wouldn’t necessarily be prohibitive, and the benefits that would accrue would be huge.”

Some of the best evidence comes from Wales, where the Assembly Government has long placed a high priority on breakfast and has funded schools to provide them for free since 2004 – nearly three-quarters of schools offer it now.

In London, the Magic Breakfast charity launched a scheme at 50 schools the same day as the Blackpool initiative started.

Universality is an important element: a Children’s Society survey showed one in four pupils entitled to free school meals shun them due to the perceived stigma.

Learning in the morning

Blackburn, who is 38, noted that the school day for primary school children is very different to when he was young, with much more learning happening in the morning now, with a later lunchtime and perhaps only one double-lesson afterwards.

“Bearing in mind that the positive benefits from eating a decent meal occur around 45 minutes from when you eat that meal, the biggest impact we could have, for comparatively small amounts of money compared to universal school lunches, was to provide students with free breakfasts.

“The benefits, in terms of concentration, are a bit lost if you do it through lunches: that became apparent to us through a wider reading of all the research that’s out there.”

He noted on his blog: “Under-nourishment is a real problem here in Blackpool, as one would expect in an area beset by high levels of child poverty.

“A recent survey of schoolchildren suggests that some of our older pupils are more likely to have used alcohol or tobacco in the last week than they are to have eaten breakfast or had five portions of fruit and veg a day.”


The problems – and the benefits

The evaluation is looking at many issues, including take-up rates among students, behaviour, attendance, and tackling lateness. Although ultimately it is hoped such a scheme could boost attainment rates too, measuring that would have to happen over a longer timeframe.

Talking about behaviour, Blackburn explained: “That’s quite a qualitative measure, but one that I’m absolutely confident that our headteachers, teachers and ancillary staff can provide us with.

“We have, for many years, had issues with poor school attendance in Blackpool, despite the best efforts of everybody concerned.

“[The figure was 95.2% for primary schools during the 2011/12 school term]. That means the best part of 5% of our kids aren’t there – they’re not going to learn anything.”

Tackling lateness

This has been an ongoing problem; in the 2009-10 school year, for example, Blackpool was the second lowest authority in the country, after Nottingham, for persistent absence in primary schools, at around 3.2%.

He noted that lateness was also a big issue. “Just anecdotally, I was told the other day that on average, my daughter’s school has about 30-35 late arrivals every day – kids turning up after registration’s closed. In the last three weeks, that’s come down to three or four.”

If the official statistics from the evaluation back up that anecdote, the scheme will be seen as a huge success.

But funding it is still expensive. Like all councils across England and especially northern metropolitan areas, Blackpool is having to make difficult decisions about jobs, cuts and service provision. For that reason, if the scheme goes permanent, Blackpool is in negotiation with potential funders and sponsors to offset some costs.

Blackburn said: “At the moment, as a pilot scheme, we’ve continued with existing suppliers, and just hugely increased orders. But to go out on a procurement deal for something of that size – there’s substantial savings to be had there. I’ve talked to a number of charities and companies, but we’re very clear that we don’t want to get tied into providing breakfast cereal by company X, for instance: at the heart of this is a real commitment to healthy eating and physical activity as well.”

Money well spent?

On some local message boards and parenting websites, the cost of the scheme has come under criticism, with some suggesting parents should be the ones taking responsibility for their children’s breakfasts, and that more money shouldn’t be taken out of council funds to subsidise this.

But Blackburn gave that criticism short shrift: “Whether your controllable budget is £160m or £160,000, you have choices about what you want to do with that money.

“In terms of value for money, let’s wait and see what the evaluation says, but I strongly suspect that this will be one of the best value for money schemes that the council has ever run.

“If people want to get agitated about spending £2m a year, they should maybe look at our public health budget, and the fact that Blackpool PCT last year spent £2m on methadone.

“If they want to get agitated about something, get agitated about methadone – not hungry kids.”

Academic evaluation

The city council is working with the University of Northumbria and the University of Central Lancashire to evaluate the effects of the scheme and its outcomes. Some, like attendance and timeliness, are easy to quantify through official statistics.

Blackburn added: “Of course, children are tested left, right and centre in schools these days, which is normally something I fundamentally disagree with, but in this case it does give us fairly regular updates on how we’re doing in terms of attainment. Obviously, that’s a longer-term ambition.

“All of the research done suggests that if the programme is followed for a period of time, then behaviour and attention levels, and consequently attainment levels, increase.”

Local decisions and wider interest

But even if the scheme proves the huge success he hopes it will be, it’s not something the Department for Education should start mandating, he said. “It’s always better for individual councils to make their own decisions. That’s the wonderful thing about local government: the solution in Blackpool might not be the same as the solution in Bradford or Barnsley or Brent.

“We’ve had expressions of interest from around 15 different local authorities at the moment – many on quite a casual level, but there’s a great deal of interest in this, and in seeing the evaluation at the end of the day.”


Grandad   04/03/2013 at 16:06

It is worth noting that the charity Mary's Meals who feed thousands of children globally breakfast at school simply because not only does it get them to school, but also they learn better all for £10 per child per year

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