13 January 2022

By Lindsey MacDonald, Chief Executive at Magic Breakfast.

Levelling up, the Government’s flagship policy to address poverty and inequality of life chances, is a bold and captivating idea. But it risks becoming a hollow slogan without concrete investments in the right policy. It doesn’t need to be this way. 

Magic Breakfast proposes that the Government invest in free school breakfast provision in every disadvantaged school in England. For £75 million more a year 800,000 pupils facing food insecurity in Primary, SEN and PRU schools would benefit from a cost-effective and proven way to tackle hunger and raise attainment.  

Ultimately, if we don’t address fundamental problems like child hunger and poverty, it will be tough to address the other inequalities communities face. 2.5 million children are at risk of hunger in the UK. That presents a severe risk to their long-term health and life chances. Whatever their potential, children won’t get a level playing field in educational outcomes without food in their bellies. 

That’s why Magic Breakfast works to ensure our partner schools can support disadvantaged pupils with a free, nutritious breakfast, so they can start the day happy, healthy and ready to learn. But as a charity with modest means, we can only achieve part of our mission to end child morning hunger for good.  It needs action from government to scale up this vital intervention to every school community in England. 

Despite a small but welcome extension to breakfast provision for some schools announced today, the Government is at risk of slipping backwards, not marching forwards, on taking levelling up from a slogan to a reality.  

In 2018-2021, our work led to a partnership with the Department for Education for the creation of the National School Breakfast Programme; a huge leap forward in achieving the vision described above. It enabled Magic Breakfast, in partnership with Family Action, to scale up our model to many hundreds of new schools. At its peak, schools supported by the programme ensured 375,000 children received a free, nutritious breakfast every school day. 

Unfortunately, things changed. In April 2021 Magic Breakfast had to make the hugely difficult choice not to bid on the 2021 tender for government funded school breakfast provision. The Department for Education, under then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, had cut investment to the programme, removing some of the most important aspects of breakfast funding.  

In the new tender there was no hunger focus, no expert staff support, and costs pushed onto schools. Despite the extension to current Government funded provision, schools will pay 25% of food costs beyond the first two terms of their involvement. 

Expert School Partner support for schools, including face to face time and intensive support and challenge, was also stripped out of the Department for Education’s new tender. Magic Breakfast, on the other hand, ensures that all our member schools still get this support under our independent provision. Having provided school breakfasts for over 20 years, we recognize the importance of not just delivering food, but supporting schools to make sure that food reaches the children who need it most – and this support is lacking from the current tender. 

As we explained in our school breakfast standards at the time, this decision left officials with impossible choices. Trying to design a tender that reached more schools with less money and expert support available. All of this at a time when schools were already coping with Covid and having to stretch fewer resources further. 

In short, Magic Breakfast decided not to bid on what we felt was a flawed approach.  We are supporting as many schools with our best practice provision as we can, thanks to the generous support of funders and partners. As of this week, there is some evidence that the new Government breakfast provision programme is struggling to recruit enough schools without sufficient support. School recruitment has fallen far short of its 2500 target, reaching only 1200 schools to date – less than half of the target. 

Our concern is that due to the tender's more limited funding and offer to schools, it does not have the resources needed to succeed, despite the best efforts of civil servants and Family Action. As a result, we fear that further problems will emerge, with fewer pupils able to access the provision in fewer schools than planned. Even if 2500 schools are able to take up the offer, that leaves a huge number of schools getting little or no support to reach pupils at risk of hunger. 

So, we come back to levelling up. Free School Breakfast can - and should - be a reality if the new ministerial team, led by the capable Nadhim Zahawi and Will Quince, act now to undo the poorly thought through changes and enact a new plan.  

Magic Breakfast stands ready to support this move, as do schools passionate about ending hunger in the classroom. As Chair of the Education Select Committee Rob Halfon said in December, the Government can and must do more to level up life chances– and where better to start than with the life chances of our young people, ensuring no child is too hungry to learn.