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Food for thought: nutrition and academic performance May 23, 2011

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in New releases, Special Educational Needs.
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New evidence commissioned by a leading partnership of food charities shows that a whole-school approach to food that links practical food education with quality school dinners leads to a better family diet and can improve academic performance and behaviour.

The Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) project was set up to encourage pupils and their parents to eat healthy food and learn how to cook it and grow it themselves. An independent evaluation of its work, by a team from the University of the West of England and Cardiff University, provides hard evidence that schools were rated more highly by inspectors after taking part in the FFLP programme.

More than twice as many FFLP primary schools received an Ofsted rating of outstanding following their participation (37.2% compared to 17.3% outstanding pre-enrolment).  Headteachers reported a positive impact on pupil behaviour, attention and attainment.

Libby Grundy, director of the FFLP, said:  “The UK has the highest rate of childhood obesity in Europe, with almost a quarter of adults and about one in ten children classed as obese and a further 20-25 per cent of children overweight.  The UWE evidence shows that our programme has made a positive difference to improving diet and this in turn is having a knock-on effect on behaviour and attainment.  Yet, just as the programme looks as if it has reached the tipping point in terms of making a cultural shift, cuts to local authority school meal budgets – and an uncertain funding future for the FFLP programme itself – could undo all the good work.”

All this mirrors some editorial we carried in the recently released Which School? for Special Needs 2011/12, in which Griselda Halling of Independent Nutrition talked about the effect a good diet can have on children’s behaviour.

Below is an extract from Giselda’s excellent article.

As well as physical health, there is a growing body of evidence to show the correlation between nutrition and behaviour, concentration and learning. In 2008, the UK Associate Parliamentary Food and Health Forum compiled a report4 that recommended the emphasis should be publicly given to the importance of a balanced diet for optimum mental health. It also recommended that further research should be done to test the effects of selected essential fatty acids on the cognitive skills, mood and behaviour of both ‘healthy’ children, as well as children suffering from a range of behavioural disorders.

Compelling evidence for the connection between diet and school performance is found in large studies of groups of school children. For example, the Nuffield Study was conducted after Jamie Oliver instigated menu improvements in the London Borough of Greenwich. It showed that healthier meals led to improved educational outcomes, in particular in English and science. It also showed a substantial decrease in absenteeism due to ill health.

Another recent survey examined the association between diet quality and the academic performance of more than 5000 Canadian schoolchildren, and found that pupils with decreased overall diet quality were significantly more likely to perform poorly. Conversely, pupils performed significantly better with an increased fruit and vegetable intake and less caloric intake from fat.

Another study showed that good nutrition had a beneficial impact on pupils’ behaviour. Pupils in the improved nutrition schools were 5.4 times as likely to be ‘on-task’ compared with pupils in control schools. The British Journal of Nutrition reports that diet can affect cognitive ability and behaviour in children and adolescents and that nutrient composition of meals can exert immediate or long-term, beneficial or adverse effects.

Which School? for Special Needs 2011/12 is the leading guide to independent and non-maintained schools and colleges of further education in Britain for pupils with sensory, physical, learning, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, or dyslexia. It is available via the John Catt Bookshop.

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