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Free school breakfasts for all children would tackle child poverty whilst boosting educational attainment

3 min read

Hundreds of thousands of children across the UK are arriving at school too hungry to learn. It is a moral outrage - and an injustice a Labour government must act swiftly to end, writes Wes Streeting MP

As one of the few MPs who benefited from free school meals, I understand better than most the impact of that policy, but school lunches aren’t enough. Today, hundreds of thousands of children across the UK will arrive at school too hungry to learn.

In August, the Daily Mirror reported that some UK schoolchildren are so hungry they are scavenging in bins, crying because of hunger, and being bribed by criminal gangs in exchange for food. One boy was reported to have been so hungry that he began eating loo paper to make his ‘tummy pain go away’. This is the legacy of nine years of Conservative ambivalence towards child poverty. It is a moral outrage that blights the lives of millions of children across our nation, and it is an injustice Labour must work swiftly to end.

The introduction of free school breakfasts for every child would ensure that no child arrives at school too hungry to learn. Before I entered Parliament, I was proud to work for Magic Breakfast, a fantastic national charity that provides nutritious breakfasts to schools in communities with high levels of deprivation, including schools in my constituency. The National School Breakfast Programme, which Magic Breakfast campaigned for, is currently feeding over 280,000 children in over 1,700 schools each morning. But there are still too many children falling through the gaps and the programme is currently due to end in March 2020.

The benefits to pupils’ education and health are well-evidenced. The Education and Endowment Foundation and Institute for Fiscal Studies found that schools supported by Magic Breakfast clubs made an additional two months’ academic progress in a year. Teachers report improved behaviour, attendance, energy levels, concentration, punctuality and attendance. Skipping breakfast is also associated with childhood obesity. There are also benefits for parents in having breakfast club provision available in schools, particularly for those who struggle to complete the school run and commute to work in time for 9am.

Magic Breakfast has already published proposals to extend the lifespan of the National School Breakfast Programme and to extend its reach by providing a statutory duty on schools to provide children with access to a nutritious breakfast, with additional funding – linked to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) – ringfenced to make this a reality.

Making breakfast freely available to all children would have the added benefit of being simple, straightforward and free from stigma. It could be paid for through contributions from the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and by removing the VAT exemptions and charitable status from private schools. There is simply no good reason why schools that educate the privileged few should be subsidised through tax breaks at the expense of the many. 

Labour’s Hammersmith and Fulham Council are already trialling free school meals for all pupils. The Welsh Labour Government implemented free school breakfasts in 2004. A future Labour government must follow their example and implement free breakfasts on a nationwide basis, alongside investment to tackle low-pay and child poverty outside the school gates.

Any nation can be judged by how it treats those to whom it has a duty of care, and this Conservative government is failing in its obligation to the nation’s schoolchildren. Eliminating child poverty and hunger will be a priority for the next Labour government. Our brilliant Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, has made clear commitments on free school lunches. I hope that in our next manifesto we’re able to go even further by making free breakfasts part of our programme to tackle child poverty and educational inequality.

Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North

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Read the most recent article written by Wes Streeting MP - No child should be denied life opportunities because they live in poverty


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