Test scores suggest need for free school breakfast

"Clearly, embedding health improvements into the core business of the school might also deliver educational improvements as well," says Hannah Littlecott. (Credit: Emergency Brake/Flickr)

A new study finds a direct and positive link between eating a good breakfast and students’ educational attainment.

The study of 5,000 9-11 year-olds from more than 100 primary schools in Wales examines the link between breakfast consumption and quality and results of standardized testing 6-18 months later.

The study finds that the odds of achieving an above average educational performance were up to twice as high for students who ate breakfast, compared with those who did not.

Eating unhealthy items like sweets and potato chips for breakfast, which was reported by 1 in 5 children, had no positive impact on educational attainment.

Pupils were asked to list all food and drink consumed over a period of just over 24 hours (including two breakfasts), noting what they ate and drank at specific times throughout the previous day and for breakfast on the day of reporting.

Alongside number of healthy breakfast items consumed for breakfast, other dietary behaviors—including number of sweets and chips and fruit and vegetable portions consumed throughout the rest of the day—were all significantly and positively associated with educational performance.

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“While breakfast consumption has been consistently associated with general health outcomes and acute measures of concentration and cognitive function, evidence regarding links to concrete educational outcomes has until now been unclear,” says lead author Hannah Littlecott of Cardiff University’s Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPher).

“This study therefore offers the strongest evidence yet of links between aspects of what pupils eat and how well they do at school, which has significant implications for education and public health policy…

“For schools, dedicating time and resource towards improving child health can be seen as an unwelcome diversion from their core business of educating pupils, in part due to pressures that place the focus on solely driving up educational attainment.

“But this resistance to delivery of health improvement interventions overlooks the clear synergy between health and education,” she says. “Clearly, embedding health improvements into the core business of the school might also deliver educational improvements as well.”

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“Most primary schools in Wales are now able to offer a free school breakfast, funded by Welsh Government,” adds coauthor Graham Moore. “Linking our data to real world educational performance data has allowed us to provide robust evidence of a link between eating breakfast and doing well at school.

“There is therefore good reason to believe that where schools are able to find ways of encouraging those young people who don’t eat breakfast at home to eat a school breakfast, they will reap significant educational benefits.”

The research took place in 2005-07 to evaluate the Welsh Government’s Free School Breakfast Initiative. This year (2015), researchers used the self-reported breakfast data collected for this trial and linked it to students’ Teacher Assessment scores. The results appear in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Source: Cardiff University