A critical review of a research article ‘The impact of breakfast clubs on pupil attendance and punctuality’.
The article, ‘The impact of breakfast clubs on pupil attendance and punctuality’ was written by Donald Simpson in November 1991 for the School of Social Science at the University of Teesside. Whilst written well, on the whole, for its time, the article highlights the ephemeral nature of educational theory and the dangers in using or referring to dated research articles.
Simpson gives a useful overview into the development of the concept of breakfast provision in schools with interesting references to background research findings in this area. He continues to explore the government’s commitment to providing breakfasts in school, as part of the National Healthy School’s Programme. (HNSP).
The article provides a detailed analysis of breakfast clubs that have been set up in the East Middlesbrough Education Action Zone (EMEAZ), primarily to meet the objective of improving attendance and punctuality. In conclusion, the article outlines the positive outcomes of breakfast clubs and methods by which these benefits can be achieved, in addition to the examination of some unresolved issues that might be raised through the expansion of breakfast provisions in schools.
But for the fact that a major justification in establishing breakfast clubs is to improve the attendance and punctuality of young people in schools, this issue does not immediately appear to be the most significant outcome of breakfast provisions in schools, per se. It would seem to be a foregone conclusion that giving young people an early morning meal will encourage them to arrive at school prior to class registration in order to take advantage of this service. The fact that this was not evidenced entirely in the research results, where, in one school it had the reverse effect, serves only to indicate the complexities of the effects of breakfast provision and the largely irrelevance of their impact specifically on attendance and punctuality as compared to other positive outcomes, such as meeting students’ needs.
This seems to be a fundamental flaw throughout Simpson’s article, where too much attention is focused on the very specific at the expense of other supporting and/or more pertinent information, the absence of which is notable. We are told, for example, at least three times, that most research on the provision of morning meals has been undertaken abroad, but more valuable information on issues such as the effects of breakfast on children’s educational performance and attendance, extensively listed in the references, are largely overlooked. Did we really need to know that the Secretary of State for School Standards wrote the foreword to Breakfast Clubs (2000) for the New Policy Institute? Why, if what is essentially a key document, referred to only briefly again, towards the end of the article?
Simpson refers mostly, if not almost exclusively to research on breakfast provision drawn from America, making no reference to any European research. His argument, as such lacks a contextual framework, making no comparison to any possible differences in school hours, which may or may not affect the need for, and impact of, breakfast clubs in schools.
In a similar way, Simpson takes a somewhat ‘back to front’ approach to supporting evidence to provide breakfast in schools. He offers poverty as a common reason why many young people skip breakfast, rather than conversely recognising that students who fail to eat before school are more likely to come from poorer families. Likewise, children with ill health are described as being more likely to suffer from material deprivation, rather than poverty being a root cause of ill health.
The article lacks an account of other circumstances that might lead to young people not eating breakfast at home prior to attending school, which might include:
- parents’ working long or anti-social hours, which might necessitate them leaving home before their children who lack the self-motivation to prepare their own breakfast
- students facing long travelling distances to school may not have an appetite, if they face an early start to the day
- the common practice of many teenage girls (in particular, but not exclusively) to skip breakfast in the misguided belief that this can help in weight control
- cultural and /or religious reasons, e.g. fasting for Ramadan.
- the tendency of many parents of Eastern ethic origins to request authorised absence for their children during the end of the summer term. This facilitates a family holiday overseas, avoiding the increase in travel costs incurred during the school holiday period. (Kingsmead School, 2007, p.2.)
The article proceeds to outline the government’s commitment school breakfast provision through the allocation of £100,000 in 1999 to support school breakfast projects. As to whether grants were distributed according to levels of deprivation, as most National Lottery funding is (New Opportunities Healthy Living Fund, 1999 p.8ff). This would seem to negate the background research on poverty, as detailed above.
There is no explanation either, on how this funding would be devolved down to local authority levels and used to meet targets set in Health Improvement Programmes (HImPs) and other local strategies designed to promote healthy living. It would have been interesting to have seen an overview on proposed project planning, project aims and objectives, partnership working, dissemination of good practice, methods for monitoring and evaluation etc. More surprisingly, perhaps, is the fact that given this article was written two years after the grant was allocated, there is no account of any reviews and exemplar projects, which the government commonly provides, Basic Skills Agency 1999) and which the very article laments the lack thereof.
The fundamental section of Simpson’s article, the evaluation of research findings, is convoluted and leaves key issues on the impact of breakfast clubs unaddressed. Purporting to evaluate the effects of five breakfast clubs established in EMEAZ it proceeds to analyse results from only two, a primary school and a special school detailing levels of authorised absence and the number of late arrivals.
The analyses provided raises a number of questions relating to the methodology used in the research as well as leaving the reader pleading to know more on a number of key issues including:
- Why are the attendance rates in the EMEAZ special school (between 85.9% and 87.1%) notably lower than the national target percentage of 95%? (Hobart High School, 2008 p1)
- How many children were there participating in the Breakfast Clubs and comparison groups?
- From what year groups were these pupils drawn in order to ensure that
the sample included a population of children from each key stage of the schooling system.– i.e. how extensive was this research?
- What were the family backgrounds of attendees at these two schools, with particular reference to indices of national deprivation as compared with national averages?
- What data was collected with regards to record each child’s age, sex and regularity of attendance at breakfast club.
- Was free school meal eligibility ascertained for all pupils as a measure of socio-economic status?
- In both schools, was the consent of the parents and pupils sought?
- Why were schools in East Middlesbrough selected, with no comparison made to schools in other geographical areas, with different family backgrounds and circumstances?
- What contribution can school breakfast clubs make to the nutrient intakes of pupils from a lower socio-economic background? (School Breakfast Clubs, Social Background and Nutritional Status, 2003 pp1-2)
- What data were obtained to assess the contribution of School Breakfast Clubs to the nutritional needs of individual students?
- Why was no detailed analysis undertaken or provided, on the specific reasons for authorised absence from school attendance, for examples, a child’s illness and/or medical appointments, family holidays, off-site learning activities etc. Such data is recorded, monitored and can be readily obtained from school management systems, as evidenced in the primary school’s deployment of Call Direct to track and respond to poor attendance and punctuality.
- Why was no research undertaken, or reported on, with particular regards to absences, particularly those unauthorised, in secondary schools where the concept of the provision of school breakfasts might have more meaningful and wider implications?
- What ongoing research and analyses will be undertaken, particularly in the light of findings to date, and how will this information be disseminated?
It could be said that there are fundamental gaps in the provision of critical information in the analysis of the research undertaken on the impact of breakfast clubs in school. These include, for examples of how:
- the provision of early morning meals might reduce the custom of many families seeking authorised absence for holidays during the school term in comparison caused to authorised absence as a result of malnutrition or illness deriving from poverty or other extenuating family circumstances? How can this be evidenced?
- the punctuality of young people’s attendance at School Breakfast Clubs be monitored and compared against their punctuality at formal class registrations? What guidelines are available for individual circumstances to be taken into account?
- the provision of school breakfasts can help address more serious issues of non attendance and late arrivals, as evidenced in data on unauthorised behaviour, particularly in secondary schools.
The presentation the research results in continuous block text is extremely difficult to read and the inclusion some major numerical errors, such as the misuse of decimal points, renders the results effectively meaningless. For example:
‘Those in the comparison group in the primary group had an average number of 14.3 authorised absences in …….the 1998-99 school year. ……In 1999/02 this reduced to an average of 127 authorised absences…. Children in the breakfast club had an average of 149 absences in 1998-99 and this fell to an average of 5.4 in 1999-2000.’ (sic)
Similar errors are presented in the analysis of attendance and punctuality rates in the EMEAZ special where the reader is also not informed if this is a primary or secondary school. The reader is left to correct these figures to make sense of them. It is also irritating the author fails to make percentage comparison on the reductions in absences and late arrivals, or otherwise, to establish a base-line for future research.
It would have been much more helpful to have summarised the results in Excel bar-charts, thereby proving an at a glance synopsis for busy teachers, school management and local authority officers. An example of such a chart is provided in Appendix I.
The increase in the number of late arrivals in the EMEAZ special school following the introduction breakfast provision is problematic in itself and cannot be justified by the complexities of school breakfast clubs, nor by the teachers’ explanation that lateness to arrive at class registration is demonstrative of the children’s need for breakfast provision. Children arriving late to class, and furthermore, finishing their toast, can lead to minor disruptive behaviour, such as chatting in class or not paying attention. Simpson could have explained how, if this behaviour is an accepted necessity, it could be utilised to positive effect, e.g. by putting children into small groups with classroom assistants or learning
Mentors to review their planners and discuss learning activities planned for that day.
Simpson’s article draws some interest conclusions on the positive impact of breakfast clubs in supporting student learning. Much of this, however, is socio-political, raising the issue, for example of whether the provision of school breakfasts should be universal and means tested. Perhaps of more relevance is the reaction of some teachers, and teaching unions such as NASUWT, to a proposed free breakfast trial for students in deprived areas. The union argues that parents should be responsible for ensuring that their children are fed before they go to school and that education funding should be spent solely on education. (BBC News, April 2004).
Simpson also makes the assumption that just because a student is at school, their behaviour and performance will improve. The impact of breakfast provision on the attainment levels of students might well comprise a more valuable piece of research rather than one which focuses on levels of attendance and punctuality.
The article also leaves much unsaid about other key issues relating to the development and expansion of school breakfast provision:
- How school breakfast clubs can contribute to the government’s Healthy Nation strategy
- How the provision of school breakfasts could contribute to the promotion of healthy lifestyles, particularly in the light of the rising rates of obesity in children today
- The contribution that school breakfast clubs could make to the development of schools
- How school breakfast clubs could encourage social inclusion and community cohesion
- How schools can access alternative sources of funding that might be available to support the development of the provision of school breakfasts and other fitness programmes?
- What sources and/or organisations are there for ongoing research into the positive impact of school breakfast clubs?
Much information is available about these key issues:
A further £80 million, for example, was allocated by the Schools Minister, Jacqui Smith, in 1999 to help create a network of clubs of clubs in almost 2,000 secondary schools and more than 4,000 primary schools by 2002.
Funds from the National Lottery had already been allocated to setting up out-of-hours clubs for schoolchildren, adding up to a total investment of £300m.
Ms Smith unveiled new research by the National Foundation for Educational Research which highlights the positive benefits of “study support”.
“Research also suggests children involved in a range of out-of-school activities are better motivated and achieve better results at school,” she said.
As well as funding for after-school clubs, additional support would be available to support some schools, which offer “breakfast” clubs, where pupils can be supervised before the school day begins.
“Study support is an integral part of the government’s strategy to improve standards,” Ms Smith continued, “All of these activities can help to raise achievement and improve pupil motivation and self-esteem.” (BBC News Online, September 1999).
It has also been suggested that the provision of school breakfasts can make a significant contribution to the nutritional needs of students. Recent research (School Breakfast Clubs, Social Background and Nutritional Status, op cit) suggests that school breakfast clubs may have a positive impact on the dietary intake by supplementing the nutritional requirements of those pupils that attend, particularly those who are also eligible for free school meals.
Breakfast Clubs could also play a vital role in Social, Personal, and Health Education. Relevant leaflets and literature to discourage anti-social behaviour or drug misuse for examples could be displayed within the clubs for the students’ perusal. Likewise, details of help-lines could be provided. Daily newspapers could also be made available to give students an alternative to accessing these through the school library.
There are a number of useful resources where further information on breakfast clubs can be sourced including:
This site is sponsored by Kellog’s, NPI (New Policy Institute) and Education Extra. The resource section contains practical ideas and advice n good practice and funding to support the development of a breakfast club. There is also comprehensive information on other funding sources and a list of useful links.
This site provides information about the National Evaluation of School Breakfast Clubs funded by the Department of Health. A multi-disciplinary research team at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, has conducted the evaluation. Users can also view online journal articles that may be of interest including:
- ‘School Breakfast .Clubs, Children and Family Support’, Shemilt, O’Brien
- Thoburn et al., Children and Society (In press).
Education Extra is a charity that supports out-of-hours learning. It provides advice, resources, information and support.
In addition to addressing further issues on the impact of breakfast clubs in schools, many improvements could be made to the general style of Simpson’s article. Whilst acknowledging that the article is a piece of academic research, its style tends towards a very formal style, and can be pedantic in places. The general poor document lay-out, and over-lengthy paragraphs do not contribute to easy reading.
The article lacks a key component – feedback and comments from teachers, school support staff, and most importantly children and students as to what they see as the impact of school breakfasts both on school learning and general student behaviour. Such comments, as exampled below, could both illustrate and reiterate the arguments and findings contained within the article.
‘It’s been really good since I joined the Breakfast Club. Not only do I get to see my friends, and talk about our homework, I also get to a chance to plan my day.’
Year 8 pupil
‘Mum always struggles to make breakfast for me and my two younger brothers, so I’ve found that the Breakfast Club has enabled me to eat a healthy breakfast and give Mum a break from cooking. I can also get diet advice which is very helpful.’
Year 9 student
‘Dad always says that I’m impossible to wake up in the morning. Since becoming a member of the Breakfast Club I now find this task a lot easier as I have a reason to start the day. Breakfast Club has been really helpful to me and I think that it is also helpful to many of my friends. I am very proud to be part of the Breakfast Club.’
Year 11 student
‘Café Orange the school’s Breakfast Club, so named because it is bright and healthy, provides a safe and friendly environment for students to interact at the start of the school day. This helps with group participation activities within lessons and more generally comfortable learning environment for the students. Since the introduction of Café Orange, both my fellow teachers and I have noticed a considerable difference in students’ general attention spans, thus making lessons easier to deliver.’
The use of comments such as those above could help improve Simpson’s article in addition to broadening out into other key issues regarding the concept of breakfast clubs in schools.
A synopsis of the research findings into the impact of the provision of school breakfasts on students’ attendance and punctuality:
|1998 – 1999||1999-2000||1998 – 1999||1999-2000|
|Numbers of authorised absences||Number of late arrivals|
|Students in the Comparison Group|
|Students who were members of the School’s Breakfast Club|
Basic Skills Agency : A Review and Evaluation of Adult Learning Programmes (1999)
BBC News Online (September 1999)
BBC News (April 1994)
Hobart High School: Pupils’ Annual Reports (2008)
Kingsmead School: Internal Report on Students’ Attendance Rates and Punctuality (2007)
New Opportunity Healthy Living Fund: Healthy Living Centres, Guidelines for Applicants (1999)
Simpson D, Summerbell C, Crow R and Wattis L (2003) School Breakfast Clubs, Social Background and Nutritional Status, British Journal of Nutrition
 It acknowledges that figures on unauthorised attendance are largely irrelevant for children at the primary stage of their education.