Jon Franklin, Chief Economist at Pro Bono Economics

In these times of insecurity, there have been only a handful of certainties to count on. Joe Wicks at 9am. Press conferences sometime slightly after 5pm. Endless quizzes over Zoom. And, like day follows night, each school closure and holiday is accompanied by a row over free school meals.

But in the furore over lunchboxes and footballers, have we forgotten about the most important meal of the day? England’s ‘Free School Meals’ policy is misleading: Free Schools Meals are really just Free School Lunches. Important as they are, breakfast doesn’t feature. And the school breakfast programmes government does fund are scheduled to come to an end this Summer.

According to UNICEF, there were up to 1.8million school age children in the UK at risk of hunger in the morning prior to the pandemic. It seems unlikely that number has diminished. The latest data from the ONS estimates more than 15% of the population has less money available to spend on food and a similar percentage are struggling to pay the bills. Surveys of teachers suggest child hunger is increasing. The Food Foundation believes 2.3million children were living in households experiencing food insecurity in March-August 2020.

There’s a strong economic imperative to tackle this – with billions of pounds a year potentially in play.

As any parent who has had to wrangle a child in the midst of a hanger-induced temper tantrum knows, behaviour plummets when energy levels drop. If children are hungry from the moment the school bell rings, it’s no surprise that concentration might fade away all the way to lunchtime. That’s three or four lessons where growling stomachs could mean learning suffers. And there is compelling evidence that academic performance is affected.

Importantly, we also have valuable evidence of the solution. Hundreds of primary schools in disadvantaged areas currently have breakfast clubs through the National School Breakfast Programme. The charity Magic Breakfast provides one model for this, offering free, universal school breakfast provision, removing the cost and minimising the stigma that can be associated with clubs such as these. And the benefits are there in spades.

Children taking part in programmes like these do better in the classroom. Better academic results are likely to mean reduced truancy levels, fewer exclusions, even lower costs incurred for Special Educational Needs and – crucially – significantly better earnings prospects for children into the future. For the price of a few bagels, beans and teacher time – the clubs cost just £180 per pupil to run each year – we estimate programmes like this can generate £9,200 of long-term benefit per child for the economy. If all 298,000 Key Stage 1 pupils in disadvantaged schools were to benefit from this kind of support for a typical year, it could generate long-term economic benefits of around £2.7billion.

One of the reasons these programmes are such a bargain is that there’s no skimming off the top. Charities with a genuine interest in improving children’s lives rather than profit are commissioned to deliver the programmes. The private sector is heavily involved without levying heavy charges: companies like Heinz, Weetabix and Quaker Oaks donate enough food to feed thousands of children, as well as their expertise and support to ensure the programmes run well. Instead of spending £30 on £5 of food, the country could reap £50 in benefits for every £1 spent.

But a question mark is currently hovering over the future of government funding for school breakfasts. The end of the Summer term this year heralds the scheduled end of the National School Breakfast Programme. And Covid has delayed the School Breakfast Bill – an opportunity to help more children and embed that help more permanently – in its early stages.

As the government looks forward to a fully-vaccinated future, the ‘lost generation’ of children who have been left behind by the pandemic have to be high priority. School breakfast club provision may be one of the most cost-effective ways it can help disadvantaged children. If it’s willing to invest in the long-term, it can help achieve its Industrial Strategy goal of ‘generating greater earning power for all’ as well.

With an inescapable deadline coming up, government has the opportunity to get ahead of the issue. It can make genuine, structural changes that have the potential to fundamentally change the lives for the most disadvantaged children in society. This is the kind of evidence Government can’t afford to ignore.