First published in The Times Red Box:
Without a doubt, school closures are having a serious impact on pupils’ educational attainment, mental health and well-being. In fact, the continued closure of schools risks kicking away the levelling up education ladder of opportunity that the government has worked so hard to put up.
Education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has widened significantly.
Child hunger and reduced educational attainment are inexorably linked. According to Kellogg’s, 99 per cent of teachers say that if a child arrives at school hungry, it impacts their attainment. To quantify this, teachers estimate that if a child arrives at school once a week hungry, they will lose on average one hour of learning on that day. This will mean missing out on learning essential skills, like reading and writing, inevitably impacting on exam results, their life chances and future prospects.
As well as a social cost, this carries an economic burden, potentially costing the English economy at least £5.35 million a year through teachers losing hours to cope with the needs of hungry children.
It is worrying, but perhaps unsurprising, that Kellogg’s research, No Fuel to Learn, shows that hunger has risen since the start of the pandemic. Thirty-eight per cent of teachers had seen an increase in children arriving at school hungry since September and a third had seen more children attend their breakfast club in the last term of 2020.
Facilities such as breakfast clubs, often directly supported by business, play a crucial role in tackling child poverty, with many offering activities and enhancement as well as providing nourishing food. I’ve seen for myself school breakfast clubs in action and the impact they have on helping pupils start their day the right way.
However, Covid-19 has put future viability at risk with almost half of teachers surveyed saying that their clubs are at risk of closure due to staff shortages, social distancing and funding. This is despite innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit shown by many involved, for example providing ‘grab and go’ breakfast trolleys where social distancing proves challenging.
At a time when child food insecurity is high in the public consciousness, in part thanks to the campaigning efforts of Marcus Rashford MBE, the private, public and charitable sectors must work together to harness public support and eradicate child food poverty for good.
I have argued that businesses, rather than just virtue-signalling, should step up the plate. Kellogg’s is one of those to put its money where its mouth is, investing over £800,000 in initiatives to fight food insecurity this year and to safeguard the future of vital lifelines like school breakfast clubs.
But businesses and the charitable sector cannot do this alone. The government has announced hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on the Holiday Activities and Food programme and the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, to ensure that free school meal-eligible children are fed whilst schools are closed. They’ve also given £16 million to frontline food charities and increased the value of Healthy Start vouchers by a third.
Of all these, the Holiday Activities and Food programme could have a massive impact, as children will be able to access academic catch-up, mental health support, arts and sports activities, and receive a free nutritious meal.
The icing on the cake would be to use the sugar tax, which is forecast to raise around £340 million in 2020/21, to fund an extension of the National School Breakfast programme and community-led initiatives to tackle child hunger. We know from studies by the EEF and IFS on Magic Breakfast’s model that pupils in schools supported by breakfast clubs made an additional two months’ academic progress over the course of a year.
Finally, while breakfast clubs and other hunger programmes are so important, we also need to get to the root of child food insecurity. This will require a long-term plan that involves early interventions, identification from day one of families that may potentially need extra support, family hubs, as well as a review of free school meals and the pupil premium, and a proper look at the welfare system to make sure it is as responsive as possible when people find themselves unemployed and could struggle to provide food for their family.