Eating breakfast has long been believed to benefit children’s education, leading to the widespread adoption of breakfast clubs throughout the UK, particularly in poorer areas. Yet in most cases, studies have tended to link eating breakfast to better cognitive performance, such as children’s concentration and memory, rather than directly to educational outcomes.
Our new longitudinal study has now found that eating breakfast is associated with educational outcomes at school.
We conducted secondary analysis of data from 5,000 nine to 11-year-olds from more than 100 primary schools in Wales. These data were collected as part of a randomised trial of the Welsh government’s Primary School Free Breakfast Initiative.
Pupils were asked to list all the food and drink they had consumed over a period of just over 24 hours (including two breakfasts), noting what they consumed at specific times throughout the previous day and for breakfast on the day of reporting.
The data was subsequently linked to pupils’ educational outcomes through the results of Key Stage 2 teacher assessments at the end of primary school – six to 18 months later.
What kids eat matters
Our results demonstrate that eating breakfast is associated with substantially increased odds of achieving higher scores in teacher assessments – classified as an average grade of four or more across English, Maths and Science. This was after adjusting for socioeconomic differences between those children who ate breakfast and those who didn’t.
Whether pupils ate breakfast, and the quality of what they ate, were consistently associated with improved educational outcomes. A “healthy breakfast” score comprised of the number of items from four categories – fruit, dairy, cereal and bread items. Eating unhealthy items such as sweets and crisps for breakfast, which was reported by one in five children, was not associated with better school results later on.
These findings provide strong evidence that aspects of pupils’ diets are linked to their educational outcomes and demonstrates the synergy between health and education. In the current political climate and amid tightening school budgets, it is key to consider the potential knock-on effects that any disinvestment in areas such as school nutrition may have on both the health and educational outcomes of school children.
Changing school environments
There is growing evidence that school environments can directly improve, or harm, health outcomes for young people, and breakfast clubs are one example of changing a school’s environment to promote health. For them to be an effective means of improving educational outcomes largely depends on the extent to which they are effective in reaching those young people who wouldn’t have eaten breakfast, or would have eaten poorer quality breakfasts, at home. But where schools are able to effectively reach these pupils, there is now very good reason to believe that they will reap educational rewards.
Yet while the widespread adoption of breakfast clubs has been driven by their perceived benefits for education, focusing on improving young people’s health can often be seen as conflicting with schools’ core business to achieve good educational outcomes. Diverting time and resources toward health improvement is often seen as taking time and resources away from this primary task.
Recent research and policy debates in the UK have begun to emphasise the need to understand how health and education may come to be viewed as complementary rather than competing agendas. For example, Public Health England has produced a briefing for school staff highlighting the reciprocal relationship between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment. Recent education reviews in Wales and Scotland have also highlighted physical and mental health and wellbeing as a priority.
Research now needs to turn to understanding what other areas might serve as focal points for efforts to promote health and educational outcomes simultaneously. There is, for example, growing evidence of associations between physical activity and educational outcomes. We need to continue to build this evidence base and effectively communicate it to schools to demonstrate that improving health and education are complementary, and not competing priorities.
Hannah Littlecott receives PhD studentship funding from the Medical Research Council and Cardiff University.
Graham Moore receives funding from the Medical Research Council, and has previously been funded by grants from the Welsh Government.