Thursday 23 October 2014

Can't please 'em all

Treasury took a bit of flack for its very sensible advice to the government on school breakfast programmes.

Treasury rightly noted that evidence for effects of these kinds of programmes on educational outcomes is very weak, that it's hard to even show that they increase the proportion of kids who report having had breakfast, and that money could be better spent.

The main NZ study on the topic concluded that school breakfast programmes had no effects on any outcome other than the child's self-reported satiety: how hungry they reported being when surveyed. The study also found substantial shifts from eating breakfast at home to eating breakfast at school. If you shift breakfast to an hour or so later in the morning when kids eat at school instead of earlier at home, you're going to affect how hungry the kid reports being when questioned before lunch. Treasury didn't note this part of the study's result in its briefing to the government, likely because you can't tell whether there was even really any effect there other than a timing effect. And so we got this:
No Right Turn said Treasury was cherry-picking by failing to report that schools with breakfast programmes reported reduced hunger among children surveyed later on. I suppose that could have been cherry picking if any of the debate around it at the time had been on "what policies reduce reported hunger when kids are asked sometime before lunch". Alternative policies could then have been encouraging kids to bring snacks to eat at 10:30. Most of the argument had been around that breakfast programmes would lift student achievement in low-decile schools. The Ni Mhurchu et al study suggested no great shakes on that front, and neither did a reasonable look at the remaining literature.

The overall review of the literature and options seemed pretty reasonable; organisations like Treasury will take flack whenever they make assessments where the evidence doesn't stack up for whatever policy option feels good. I suppose people don't go for jobs at Treasury to be loved, although the "living standards" policy framework does suggest that some there are aiming at a friendlier packaging.

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