A popular brand of cereal was once accompanied by the slogan “central heating for kids”. In the television advertisements (which have become something of a classic) children leave the house with an uncanny red glow, the visual token of the benefits of a good breakfast.
It seems 70s ad executives knew more than they thought. There’s a persuasive body of research that suggests eating a healthy breakfast in the morning has a range of positive effects on a child’s ability to learn. Many schools have started to offer breakfast clubs, both in reaction to this evidence and in order to boost attendance.
RSA Fellow Laura Billings cites this evidence in the introduction to her short report Beyond Breakfast, which describes a project she’s undertaken in Willesden, North London with funding from the RSA’s Catalyst seed fund. She worked in partnership with charity Magic Breakfast, who provide free breakfasts to over 200 primary schools across the country (their generous support enabled Laura to work on the project).
Laura aimed to investigate whether a school breakfast club could create opportunities for learning in the wider community, as well as helping children get through the school day. As she puts it: “’fuel for learning’ [Magic Breakfast’s slogan] could be argued to include not only a nutritional breakfast, but also quality schooling, parental involvement and community social capital. And this involves us all”.
You can see Laura describe the project in the video above, but her idea at its simplest is to use the breakfast club as an excuse to ask parents a question: what would you like to learn? Drawing on the work of American academic Dr. Jerry Stein and his Learning Dreams project, Laura and Michelle (a teacher at the school) tried to connect parents who wanted to learn something with people in the local community who could teach them.
The first parent they met, for example, was Ngenarr, who said she wanted to dance. Laura and Michelle helped to find a local teacher who could teach a class at the school, and other parents at the school helped to organise and promote the sessions. As this suggests, where the project becomes really interesting is in its potential to create links between members of the community.
The relationship between a school, a child and their parent is necessarily focussed on certain kinds of activity, mostly related to formal education. Laura’s aim was to show that there are opportunities to create connections between parents and other members of the community that can support a different kind of learning, accessible to parents as well as children. What’s more, she hoped that this could point to a more sustainable model for breakfast clubs, as a collaborative undertaking between a school and its community.
In her clear-eyed evaluation of the project’s impact (which is concise and worth reading in full) Laura acknowledges that making connections isn’t an easy thing to do: building relationships of trust requires time and patience, and isn’t easily done in the confines of a busy school day. Laura’s suggestion is that creating a new kind of common space is the next step, with activities determined by the local community – with healthy breakfasts as a way to welcome people in and create a warm atmosphere.
This echoes the findings of the RSA’s Connected Communities work in New Cross Gate, where surveys and interviews indicated the importance of local community hubs – pubs, cafes and community centres – in sustaining local social networks, and providing opportunities for interaction between people who would otherwise not meet.
Of course, a ‘hub’ is only as useful as the people use it, and creating a physical space – no matter how well intentioned – is no panacea. However, what Laura’s project shows is that the idea of something universal and easily grasped, like the need for a decent breakfast, can start a chain of helpful social connections.
She admits she didn’t see the project ending up that way, which is perhaps the thing I like best about it. Beyond Breakfast began with the problem of a hungry belly and ended with something else entirely: the idea that learning can spread through a community like water through pipes. Perhaps the ad men weren’t so far off the mark, and even a little modest: a good breakfast can be central heating for all of us.
Sam Thomas is the RSA's project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.