“Our school day begins with breakfast in class for everyone”

As part of our Magic Stories series, we speak to Catherine Jones, Headteacher at one of our long-standing partner schools, Thorney Close Primary School in Sunderland, about what poverty looks like in her school, how children are supported to get the very most out of their education, and the successful breakfast provision she's implemented in every classroom.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your school?

I've been headteacher at Thorney Close Primary School for the last 19 years. Here we strive to ensure we serve our local children and their families well. Our classrooms are hives of activity, full of creativity and learning; our school motto is ‘Where learning blossoms.’ It’s my vision that all of our children are filled with positive experiences, that they are aware of the endless possibilities that await them, and that they are nurtured in order to develop a confidence to embrace whatever comes their way.

I was born and bred here in Sunderland, it’s a great seaside city. When I was growing up, it was supported by heavy industry and we were really proud of our ship building, but it's changed over the years and the population is in decline a little.

Our school is in a quite a deprived area and child poverty is a huge issue. During the pandemic, the number of children in our school entitled to free school meals grew from 33% up to 48%, and our pupil premium was at 66%. Sometimes people think the children who aren't entitled to free school meals are quite affluent and don't need the support, but it's not like that in our school unfortunately. Families either fall below the threshold and get free school meals or they’re just above it.

What does poverty look like in your school?

Many people don't understand what poverty really looks like for children. It can be hard to understand that, in such a wonderful society that we live in, children are still suffering.

So I’ll share a little about what poverty looks like for us. Some children can be quite small and pale, some don't have appropriate clothes, they don't fit and are often stained, and shoes are a big issue - children might only often have one pair which may have holes in. Children can have poor gait and struggle with walking, and we also have children in reception who aren't continent. There's often a lot of delayed language, and there can be high rates of SEN and accompanying diagnosis of things like autism spectrum condition and ADHD.

Poor communication with families is another issue of poverty. Sometimes parents don't engage much with school, meaning children can be very late for school. So as a school we do what we can to try and offset some of these huge barriers.

What are some of the steps you’ve taken to support children living in poverty?

We've worked really hard over the years to poverty proof. Ever since I started I’ve been determined to make sure that no matter what a family’s income is, school is the best it can be for the child.

The first thing we did was make sure that children all had a uniform, which we give out at the beginning of the year, as well as PE kits that stay in school that we wash every week, and we make sure children have learning tool kits like rulers, pens, pencils, dictionaries or whatever they need to learn. We make sure school visits are subsidised, and if we ever take the children on trips, there are bursaries available for parents to make sure nobody misses out because of family income.

We also understand that deprivation and poverty can bring huge issues with mental health, so we’ve worked for years with charities like Place2Be, and we’ve realised it isn’t just about working with the children, it’s important to work with the families as well.

But partnering with Magic Breakfast is probably one of the biggest things we've done to make a difference to support children.

When and why did you first partner with Magic Breakfast?

We joined up with Magic Breakfast around seven years ago. Before then I’d tried to run breakfast clubs in all manner of different ways. We had one at 8am that was free, then we made a small charge of around 20-50p, but we only ever got about 30-40 children attend each day, and they were never the children who needed to come the most.

When we partnered with Magic Breakfast we decided to take it as an opportunity to change the school day and make breakfast the best it could be. We made sure that every child was going to feel welcomed every day.

How does your school deliver breakfast provision?

Now, we truly have the best start to the day. The school day starts a little earlier than before, and every child is welcomed each morning with a handshake and a breakfast.

Children go straight into their classroom where the teacher and teaching assistant serve healthy breakfast food provided by Magic Breakfast. The teachers eat too and make it like a home experience, which really helps with manners. Children are also responsible for taking the food to class and sharing it out.

It’s a lovely sociable time; the older children might watch Newsround and talk about what's happening in the world, and the younger children talk about what happened at home the night before. The children enjoy it so they now want to come into school early.

The hot food, like bagels and baked beans, is prepared by the cook each morning, so we subsidise that a little to make sure children get really good quality food.

When we first set up the programme, we noticed some children went back for seconds or even thirds, which really surprised me. Some children would polish off cornflakes and a bagel, so were clearly coming into school hungry. But what surprised me even more was that if there were ever any bagels left over at break time, children were eating them cold because they were hungry again already.

What are the positive impacts of breakfast provision on the school community?

One of the biggest changes in our school is the children now arrive on time, and attendance has got better. The beginning of the day is so calm and focused, and it's made a massive difference on learning because the children are now all fed and ready to learn.

Another huge difference is that we no longer have children who are masking hunger. If anybody is still hungry after breakfast, they're not frightened to ask for something else. Magic Breakfast has enabled us to reach out to every child in the school, it's really important no child gets missed.

The children are all happy because they've had something to eat as well as social time, and the parents are less stressed because they aren’t worrying about getting the children ready and feeding them before school. So it's just really strengthened the bond that we have with the children and the families.

It’s become part of our culture here at Thorney Close. When we started classroom breakfasts up again after lockdown the children were just so excited, because for them it was also about getting back to normality again.

How did you support families through the pandemic?

The pandemic caused lots of challenges for our families; many parents were furloughed or lost their jobs, and food became a big issue. When schools closed for the first time, lots of children were initially sent home with lunch bags, then, parents became very reliant on lunchtime food vouchers.

But even with the vouchers, breakfast was a big issue. So, we were over the moon when Magic Breakfast allowed us to get healthy breakfast food out to the families in their homes via home deliveries of breakfast food or take-home packs, which was fantastic. By September, over 100 of our families were getting home breakfast provision, which made a huge impact.

During lockdown, a lot of families also quickly lost their structure and routine, and when we’d go to visit children at home we’d sometimes find them still in the pyjamas. So we had a big challenge to not undo all the wonderful work we’d done in school, simply because children couldn't come in.

We quickly decided to offer online learning so we could replicate the school day the best we could, and make sure the children had access to live lessons. The first barrier was that children didn't have Wi-fi or devices to learn on, so, we took 147 Chromebooks and Wi-fi out to families’ homes. With the breakfast provided by Magic Breakfast, we knew the children were able to have something to eat at the start of the day, so they were ready to start their online learning.

I want to say a huge thank you to Magic Breakfast, because of your support children in my school are more settled, focussed, happy, and ready to learn. It has made a massive difference.


All children enjoy breakfast in class each morning at Thorney Close Primary School