Cardiff University public health experts have discovered a powerful link between a pupil’s breakfast quality and their performance at school. The study – the largest to date looking at how nutrition influences school performance — recorded the breakfast habits of 5000 pupils aged 9 through 11, and their results in the Key Stage 2 Teacher Assessments 6-18 months later. The pupils who ate breakfast, and had better quality food at breakfast, achieved higher academic outcomes that the ones attending classes on an empty stomach.

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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,” said Hannah Littlecott, lead author of the paper.

“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 – pertinent in light of rumours that free school meals may be scrapped following the November spending review.”

The pupils were asked to remember all the food and drinks they consumed over a 24 hour period, noting what they had and the specific time of the meals throughout the day as well as what they ate in the morning of the reporting.

The data shows that beside the quality and number of healthy items consumed for breakfast, other dietary habits — such as the ratio of sweets to fruits and vegetables each pupil had daily, for example — also had a positive effect on educational performance. Eating unhealthy items like sweets and crisps for breakfast, which was reported by 1 in 5 children, had no positive impact on educational attainment.

“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. Clearly, embedding health improvements into the core business of the school might also deliver educational improvements as well,” Hannah concluded

Professor of Sociology and Social Policy Chris Bonell, from the University College London Institute of Education, welcomed the study’s findings.

“This study adds to a growing body of international evidence indicating that investing resources in effective interventions to improve young people’s health is also likely to improve their educational performance. This further emphasises the need for schools to focus on the health and education of their pupils as complementary, rather than as competing priorities. Many schools throughout the UK now offer their pupils a breakfast. Ensuring that those young people most in need benefit from these schemes may represent an important mechanism for boosting the educational performance of young people throughout the UK”.

Dr Graham Moore, who also co-authored the report, added:

“Most primary schools in Wales are now able to offer a free school breakfast, funded by Welsh Government. Our earlier papers from the trial of this scheme showed that it was effective in improving the quality of children’s breakfasts, although there is less clear evidence of its role in reducing breakfast skipping.”

“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.”

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