Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Today I hope to be speaking in a Westminster Hall Debate on the National Food Strategy organised by my friend and colleague, Jo Gideon MP.
Yet as the country once again grapples with a Covid-Christmas dilemma, many families and schools face a starker challenge of food hunger.
Lockdowns and school closures following the outbreak of the pandemic have had a devastating impact on children’s learning, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ofsted’s latest annual report shows that pupils lost 33 million days of learning. Indeed, at a recent hearing of the Education Select Committee, which I chair, the Education Policy Institute confirmed that for the most disadvantaged secondary school-aged pupils, they had gone from being 1.9 months behind in their reading to 2.4 months over the course of the year.
The Government is rightly boosting support for schools with nearly £5 billion of education catch-up funding targeted towards recovery through the National Tutoring Programme. But all the extra tuition in the world won’t work if children arrive at school without having eaten a nutritious breakfast.
There will be some out there who argue this should be the responsibility of parents and carers. In an ideal world, it should be, but sadly, in too many cases, this is not happening.
Can readers really stand in front of the single mother of three I spoke to, and tell her she should be denied temporary help and her children left to go hungry, because she had been made redundant due to the pandemic and can no longer afford to put food on the table?
The statistics are clear. We know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GCSE grades than children who don’t. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs make two months additional academic progress. According to Kellogg’s (an organisation not usually associated with the left), hunger could cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils.
So how, ask those rightly concerned about public finances, are we supposed to pay for this? I was not a great fan of the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks. It disproportionately affects those on lower incomes who might simply want to purchase the occasional treat for their kids. But it also generates a revenue of £340 million each year.
Given that the money was originally intended to fund healthy living initiatives, why not use it to fund hunger reduction programmes? That way no-one needs to ask the taxpayer for more money.
According to a new poll conducted by Opinium Research, two thirds of UK adults (66 per cent) would be likely to support the Government increasing spending on school breakfast provision for disadvantaged children through using unspent funds from the Coca-Cola tax.
Magic Breakfast have calculated that for £75 million more per year, funded by the sugar tax, the Government could ensure that 7,300 of the most disadvantaged primary and SEN schools could provide a free, nutritious breakfast to every pupil that needs it.
This would reach an estimated 900,000 pupils throughout the year, targeted to the most disadvantaged schools. This could complement other initiatives such as the deeper strategy to support Family Hubs championed by my colleague Fiona Bruce MP and given the additional £500 million provided in this year’s Autumn Budget.
Currently, the Department for Education’s new breakfast provision service reaches just 30 per cent of schools in high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison last year taxpayers spent £380 million on Free School Meals vouchers.
For some, this may be difficult to stomach, but no Conservative opposed the £70 billion furlough scheme which was in essence, a welfare benefit to employers. And no Conservative opposed the £850 million Eat Out to Help Out scheme – again, another form of welfare relief to the hospitality industry.
Pro Bono Economics report the impact of free school breakfasts on Key Stage 1 pupils’ future economic contribution. If every pupil in disadvantaged areas received breakfast provision, this would translate into nearly £3 billion in long-term economic value.
If support can be made available to businesses feeling the brunt of the pandemic, then surely we could provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children.
Dealing with child hunger should not be a left-wing issue. Indeed, the Levelling-Up agenda has the potential to heal some significant social injustices in our country and provide every child with a hand-up to climb the ladder of opportunity.
Supporting high-quality education and increasing academic attainment in schools must be crucial to levelling-up but we can’t expect pupils to succeed on an empty stomach.
No-one has to ask the taxpayer for more money to do this – the money is waiting in Treasury coffers to be used. So as we look towards a new year, and a new start, let’s make free school breakfasts a new year’s levelling-up resolution.