Breakfast clubs: the evidence

This is the time of year where the mantra ‘work smart, not hard’ goes out the window for many people in schools. As teachers pile in the hours before the school day and after the school day it might be worthwhile to take a step back and consider: what works?

I would like to flag here that I have many many reservations about the phrase ‘what works’ in education. The rise of the randomised control trial and systematic meta-analyses of wildly different programmes in education had led to many a policy error. It has also led to an increase focus on what we can successfully measure and a fear of those things that are difficult to measure: well-being etc. This notion also excludes ethical considerations. Putting staff into a constant state of fear and anxiety might work- but is that acceptable?

That aside, whilst I have been rather disparaging of some of the Education Endowment Foundation’s work in the past, their work on breakfast clubs is genuinely useful for schools and worth consideration at this time-pressured part of the year. Whilst the research primarily related to work in Primary schools there are some important messages for Secondary schools as well. Students can gain as much as 2 months additional progress by attending a breakfast club. Even half as much as this in the lead up to exams would represent a worthwhile intervention in any school.

Quality of the evidence

The findings suggest that it is not just eating breakfast that delivers improvements, but attending a breakfast club.

One of the reassuring aspects of the evaluation report on the breakfast clubs is that the EEF actually outline a decent theory of change associated with the intervention. This provides a rationale for using the measures that they do in order to evaluate the clubs. PreviousEEF reports on, for example, Japanese lesson study, have used relatively specific academic outcomes to measure the short-term effectiveness of teaching and learning method with requires long term commitment and refinement from the practitioner and also has hard-to-quantify impacts on pupil learning.

What makes it work

The other benefit of the evidence is the size of the sample and the scalable nature of the programme. Randomised control trials in the passed have declared particular practices such as lesson observations as not cost-effective when the programme used to represent this area of practice involved very expensive, and highly unnecessary computer equipment. This breakfast club model, however, seems relevant in a range of contexts. The schools simply need to stick to these provisos:

  • Universal- might seem strange when thinking of an intervention but this reduces stigma, thereby increasing take up and therefore maximising the knock on effects in terms the classroom environment.
  • Free- similar reasons as above
  • Before-schools- this is interesting, if the intervention is to be successful it can’t be a compulsory part of the school day. Counter-intuitive but important.

There were some other key message about what is required for a successful breakfast club including a strong consideration of student preferences, a strong delivery team within the school, strong support from the governing body, and decent promotion of the introduction of the breakfast club.

But, why does it work?

Here’s another interesting feature: the number of children who actually reported eating breakfast did not increase. Rather, the impact came from the decision to eat at school instead of at home.

“Any direct effect from breakfast consumption on pupil attainment is therefore likely to be due to changing the content and context of breakfast, rather than whether or not any breakfast is consumed.”
This rather debunks the theory that breakfast clubs are beneficial as a result of the need for a decent breakfast to start the day. The major impact noted was the levels of concentration in the classroom which begs the question: why do kids concentrate better when they eat breakfast at school rather than at home? The answer seems to be something to do with the social benefits of eating at school or the better quality of breakfast provided by the school than what students might have had at home.
It is also interesting to note in the report that the clubs had positive effects on concentration levels throughout the day and impacted the learning even of those not in the club by improving the classroom environment and behaviour around the school.
So, if you are going to do intervention, do it in the morning, and with some toast.


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