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Just a Spoonful of Sugar makes the lessons go down.

Goodness me, the Treasury caused something of a fluttering of feathers in the dovecote when they questioned the benefits attributed to programmes that provide breakfast or other food in schools. The key statement summed up their view:

Evaluations of school food programmes do not indicate that food in schools programmes are necessarily effective at achieving their intended outcomes. For example, a 2012 Auckland University study found a New Zealand breakfast programme had no statistically significant effect on attendance and no effect on academic achievement or student conduct. These findings on academic achievement and student conduct are consistent with the findings of well-designed international studies on school breakfasts in first world countries. Internationally the majority of studies found that even where breakfast was offered at school, there was no increase in the probability of a child actually eating breakfast

The responses to this were reported under headlines such as “Treasury officials should try working without food!” which shed a lot of light on the issues. I have long said in previous blogs that there is no evidence that hunger impedes learning. Sickness, unsafe environments, deep unhappiness will all impact on the engagement of a student but hunger on its own? No!

Otherwise you exclude a huge number of the world’s young people from learning.

Of course the people who work to take food into school are well intentioned and motivated by a genuine belief that what they are doing is helping. Certainly it might be helping students to feel welcomed at school, the social gains coming from shared consumption of food might well be worthwhile. But, Treasury reminds us, there is as yet no evidence that the students will learn better.

The real danger of adamantly asserting that young people will learn better when they are well-fed opens up an easy position for the apologists of failure who run the argument that these students do not learn because they are hungry. If they do learn better when fed then it has to show in some way and this ought to be capable of measurement.

Then there is the convenience of forgetting that many middle class young people do not have breakfast and this is a lifestyle choice they make. At best many students in many well-off homes have an at best desultory attitude toward the power of Kornies or yoghurt to unleash the brain.

Learning is far too complex to be simply fixed up by a sausage roll or a plate of breakfast food and that is what attention should be paid to. Why after 137 years of providing for universal education do we still have a school system that certainly allows all young people to enter but in no way provides for equitable and successful outcomes. Why do the stubborn statistics of failure still stalk us as they have done for so many decades?

Mary Poppins could get away with promoting a spoonful of sugar but that’s not going to work.

Children fail because of a collocation of factors which together probably are what equates to poverty and if not poverty than certainly to a state of being empoverished. The factors of this conspire to bring poor housing conditions, poor employment opportunities, poor health and access to healthcare, low access to quality early childcare education – the list could go on – all of which on their own could be pushed back but which in consort are a formidable set of hurdles for some families to overcome.

Of course this manifests itself in the classrooms of the country – sometimes in an isolated way and sometimes in a widespread manner. In the latter situation learning is difficult and the spiral of intergeneration failure continues to gather momentum.

So the job is not done simply through the provision of a bit of tucker.



Published inEquity

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