Research links breakfast to GCSE attainment


The University of Leeds has recently published a study examining the link between breakfast consumption and academic attainment – the first study to examine this relationship.

This research was originally published in Frontiers in Public Health by Dr Katie Adolphus , Dr Clare L. Lawton, Professor Louise Dye, at the Human Appetite Research Unit, University of Leeds.

Unlike cognitive performance tests, often administered for research purposes, GCSE qualifications have a functional relevance to the pupil, with both immediate and long term effects on eligibility to pursue further education, higher education and employment. GCSE attainment was assessed by three composite measures using the 2012 Department for Education point score system, where A* = 58, A = 52, B = 46, and so on. Adding up pupils’ scores across all subjects gave pupils an aggregated score. Grades achieved in Mathematics and English were also examined separately in the analysis. These outcomes were chosen to reflect typical performance indicators used within the education system, performance tables and educational research. Attainment in Mathematics and English were considered separately as these represent compulsory subjects which continue to be included as part of entry requirements for further education and as part of government targets for schools.

The focus on school-day breakfast consumption in this relationship is novel and renders the study findings particularly relevant for informing school-based interventions.

The key findings showed that school-day breakfast skipping was associated with negative outcomes for measures of aggregated GCSE performance after controlling for SES, gender and ethnicity. Rarely eating breakfast on school days (i.e. on 0-1 school-days per week) reduced capped (best 8) GCSE point score by 10.2 points and mean point per qualification by 1.2 points. The magnitude of the effects suggests meaningful differences in GCSE grades (Department for Education point score scale increases by 6 points for each grade increase). The findings are consistent with previous research demonstrating that breakfast consumption is positively associated with academic performance in children and adolescents, outlined in our previous systematic review (Adolphus et al. 2013). This has important implications given that GCSE performance represents the first major branching point in a young person’s educational career, which can have an impact on participation and success in post-16 education and future employment.

Most of the previous research on breakfast and learning has considered the effects of breakfast on objective cognitive performance outcomes in controlled laboratory-based environments (Adolphus et al. 2016). However, investigation of the effect of breakfast on ecologically valid academic outcomes has been largely neglected. Our systematic review critically evaluated research on the effects of breakfast on academic performance in terms of school grades and achievement tests scores (Adolphus et al., 2013).

This review indicated that both habitual breakfast consumption and school breakfast programs are positively associated with academic performance in children and adolescents.

However, the majority of studies included in the review did not differentiate between school day and weekend breakfast intake, despite the likely importance of school-day breakfast consumption in the relationship with academic attainment. Further, no study had examined the relationship between breakfast and GCSE performance. The current newly published study adds to this evidence base in a sample of British adolescents and demonstrates the positive relationship between habitual school-day breakfast consumption frequency and GCSE attainment.

Find out more in the original published article in Frontiers in Public Health here.