George wants four pieces of toast, cut into four please. Bea is having porridge with a gentle snowfall of sugar across the top. Poppy is thoughtfully picking the slices of banana out of the bowl of chopped fruit in the middle of the table.
The breakfast club at Moulsecoomb primary school is not supposed to open till 8am, but by 7.50 there are already a dozen children through the door, and teaching assistant Dana Gutsell and her helper, Tracey, are turning out breakfasts and pouring warm drinks with the pace of an F1 pit stop. “The kids we get here come for a mix of reasons,” says Gutsell, who, along with her other breakfast club helpers, won a Healthy Eating award last week. “Their parents need to get to work, or they come here for breakfast, or sometimes they have other reasons. There was one boy who had a big attachment problem with his mum; every morning he was crying and really upset when she had to go. But he and I got on very well, so he started coming here, where it’s a bit of a quieter start to the day, and one of us would walk him up to his class every day. He’s fine now.”
I ask how Gutsell thinks the school would cope without the club, and she shakes her head. “Well, there are parents who would find it incredibly difficult. And the kids love coming here; for a lot of them I think it’s a home away from home. One or two of them accidentally call me mum sometimes. I don’t think we could do without it.”
But that was the possibility raised a few days earlier, during the Labour leadership hustings. Ed Balls told the audience: “Frank Field [currently thinking out new welfare strategies for the Tories] has said that parents should be able to ‘get their own kids dressed, breakfasted and ready for school’. Well, I just want to say that as schools minister I visited hundreds of schools, and headteachers always wanted to tell me that there are a couple of children in every school who may not even be going home at night.” Breakfast clubs, argued Balls, are one of the most crucial tools in the fight against child poverty.
Frank Field has clearly become aware of Balls’s comments, and denies that he is suggesting shutting down breakfast clubs. “But surely getting parents to rely more and more on breakfast clubs is not any index of success,” he says. “It’s an index of something much more troubling that is going on in these children’s lives.”
But that, sadly, goes right to the heart of the matter. Carmel McConnell has been setting up breakfast clubs through her organisation Magic Breakfast for 10 years, and feeds 3,000 children every morning. “I hear about cases of rickets, scurvy, distended bellies. You have kids who, when they first start coming, grab huge plates of food and take it off to the corner of the room and put their arms around it. One teacher said to me ‘these kids are growing up with parents who have a 21st century attitude to technology, they’ve got plasma screens and PlayStations, but they’ve got a 19th century attitude to feeding their children’. Foraging is a word I hear a lot, kids left to forage for their own food at home, and I don’t like it.”
It costs, McConnell thinks, about £10,000 a year to set up a good breakfast club. “You don’t need them everywhere, but estimates suggest that there are about 700,000 primary school children who are eligible for free school meals, and those are the children who are coming to school too hungry to learn. I’m terrified that this new government is going to revert to the bad old ‘don’t give welfare to feckless poor people’ attitude. We are trying to educate parents as well as feed their children. We’re building capacity, we’re not building welfare.”
Claire Reid, deputy head at Wilberforce school in west London, echoes McConnell’s commitment: “In an ideal world parents would do this, yes, but you’ve got to look at the levels of deprivation that some of our children come from. As a teacher, if one of your children hasn’t eaten that morning, you know that they just won’t be able to concentrate and focus on the day ahead.”
A 2008 study by the School Foods Trust showed that key stage 2 results were improved by the presence of a breakfast club. But there is no ringfenced money for them, so schools that set them up need to find the money in their budgets somehow, or rely on far-seeing local authorities or private support. In the end, if Field is not going to encourage them, and if school budgets are squeezed and private funding dries up, breakfast clubs may very well suffer. And for the children who need these clubs, for the children for whom they are a safe place before school, that would be a tragedy.
At Moulsecoomb, there is a boy with shadows like bruises under his eyes, thin, exhausted, and angry looking. He nurses a cup of hot chocolate against his chest, refuses toast, and is teased by the other boys. “Leave him alone,” says Gutsell gently, calming the situation down. “He’s feeling grumpy, leave him alone.”
Names have been changed