DELIVERING a successful Brexit is rightly Boris Johnson’s top priority. The debate around what success looks like is dominated by economic yardsticks – will our GDP rise? Can we sign a trade deal with America? Is our growth rate sustainable?
However, he must also tackle some of the ingrained social challenges that affect communities across the country, especially in inner-city and post-industrial areas. Britain after Brexit must feel different on the ground for families, rather than just look different on economists’ spreadsheets.
Our approach to ending child hunger and tackling child poverty are prime examples of what needs to change – and must be at the very top of his “to do” list.
The challenge is stark. Around 1.8 m school-age children in the UK are at risk of hunger – five pupils in every class of 30.
Hunger affects children’s concentration and behaviour in the classroom, attainment in exams and ultimately their life chances, employability and wider social mobility.
Hungry children miss out on success at school, which in turn holds them back for the rest of their lives, often leading to unemployment and poverty.
Magic Breakfast is a leading charity working hard to tackle this issue and currently feeds more than 40,000 children every school day in 481 schools.
Its work delivers results. Independent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that pupils in primary schools offering a free, nutritious breakfast boosted their reading, writing and maths results by an average of two months’ progress over a year, compared to children in schools with no such provision.
The improvements at a primary school in Barnsley show the transformative impact of breakfast clubs. The school launched a breakfast club in September 2014, with Magic Breakfast’s support.
Some 170 out of 220 children attended breakfast in the first week. The headteacher says it had a major impact across a range of areas, including lateness, behavioural incidents and improved relationships between staff and children and staff and parents.
The school also saw a clear improvement in educational attainment with exam results improving dramatically in just one year – 83 per cent of Key Stage 2 pupils reaching the expected standard, compared with 33 per cent the year before, and 85 per cent of Year 1 pupils achieving a pass in phonics,
compared with 40 per cent the year before.
Similar progress has been achieved in other schools. When I started working with Magic Breakfast over a decade ago, the charity relied on donations and operated with a full-time staff of just three. Nonetheless, it delivered inspirational results and impact.
Yet we knew even then that child hunger could be ended only if we had sustained funding and political will from the top.
After years of lobbying local government (including Boris Johnson as Mayor of London) and the Department for Education, the Government launched the National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP) to ensure children in the most disadvantaged areas have a healthy breakfast, based on the Magic Breakfast model.
The NSBP has proved a big success. It provides a free nutritious breakfast in more than 1,775 schools every school day, feeding more than 280,000 children daily.
In a typical week, it delivers 624,000 bagels, 7,224 boxes of cereal and 260kg of porridge oats.
A school supported by NSBP that had a level of pupil lateness at double the national average has seen a significant improvement in attendance now that breakfast bagels are served in the hall, playground and at the three school entrances.
Funding is scheduled to end in March 2020 and the new PM should make an early decision to renew it to maintain the momentum.
Renewal will cost around £12m a year, reassure schools and prevent hundreds of thousands of children from falling hungry in the morning and failing in the classroom. It will also mean our party’s social mission to improve the education and life chances of our young people continues.
By investing in breakfast clubs, we give children fuel for learning and send the strongest possible signal that we are committed to building a fairer society by ending child hunger and poverty.