Skipping breakfast linked to lower GCSE grades

Students who rarely ate breakfast on school days achieved lower GCSE grades than those who ate breakfast frequently.

Many studies have suggested that breakfast has a positive impact on learning in children. Shedding light on the fact, scientists from the University of Leeds have examined associations between habitual school-day breakfast consumption frequency and academic performance, as measured by the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).

The GCSE is a national academic qualification obtained by most British children during secondary education.

By adding together all the student’s test results, scientists found that students who said they rarely ate breakfast accomplished almost two grades lower than the individuals who rarely missed eating breakfast.

Lead researcher Dr. Katie Adolphus, from the University of Leeds’ School of Psychology, said: “Our study suggests that secondary school students are at a disadvantage if they are not getting a morning meal to fuel their brains for the start of the school day.”

“The UK has a growing problem of food poverty, with an estimated half a million children arriving at school each day too hungry to learn. Previously we have shown that eating breakfast has a positive impact on children’s cognition.”

“This research suggests that poor nutrition is associated with worse results at school.”

Scientists noted, “The findings support the calls to expand the current limited free school breakfast program to include every state school in England. A policy proposal from Magic Breakfast to introduce school breakfast legislation is currently being considered by politicians, which has been supported by Leeds academics.”

Alex Cunningham, CEO of Magic Breakfast, said: “This study is a valuable insight, reinforcing the importance of breakfast in boosting pupils’ academic attainment and removing barriers to learning. Education is crucial to a child’s future life success and escaping poverty, therefore ensuring every child has access to a healthy start to the day must be a priority.”

“We are grateful to the University of Leeds for highlighting this positive impact and welcome their findings, highlighting once again the importance of our work with schools.”

Data collection was carried out between 2011 and 2012. Schools were recruited to take part in the study by coordinating with a senior teacher. A total of 294 students were surveyed.

Almost 29% of students reported that they never or rarely had breakfast on school days. 18% ate breakfast occasionally, and 53% frequently.

The figures are similar to the latest national data for England in 2019, which found that more than 16% of secondary school children miss breakfast.

GCSE grades were converted to point scores using the Department for Education’s 2012 system, where A* = 58, A = 52, B = 46, and so on. Adding up students’ scores across all subjects gave students an aggregated score. Those who rarely ate breakfast scored on average 10.25 points lower than those who frequently ate breakfast, a difference of nearly two grades, after accounting for other relevant factors including socio-economic status, ethnicity, age, sex, and BMI.

Taking a gander at performance for every individual GCSE, they found that students who rarely had breakfast scored overall 1.20 points lower than the individuals who frequently had breakfast, after representing different factors. Each grade equates to six points, so the distinction represented a drop of a fifth of a grade for each GCSE an individual achieved.

Nicola Dolton, Programme Manager for the National School Breakfast Programme, from Family Action, said: “The National School Breakfast Programme is delighted to see the publication of this thorough and compelling research, highlighting the impact that breakfast consumption has on a child’s GCSE attainment.

“This report provides impressive evidence that eating a healthy breakfast improves a child’s educational attainment, which supports our findings of improvements in a child’s concentration in class, readiness to learn, behavior and punctuality.”

The paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.

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