Holiday camps can tackle holiday hunger and be educational – but there is room to improve

12 Jan 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Jan 2021

Marcus Rashford MBE relied on free school meals - and has done pretty well in life
Marcus Rashford MBE relied on free school meals - and has done pretty well in life

Feeding hungry children should be uncontroversial. Combining this with activities to develop skills and knowledge sounds like a good idea – and work involving Children in NI shows promise.


Holiday hunger has arguably never had a higher profile.

Footballer Marcus Rashford MBE is a global star and his campaign to raise awareness, based on his own personal experiences, has shot this issue – and wider concerns about child poverty – into the spotlight.

Simply put, his profile is absolutely massive. Combined with the fact that he seems very likeable, he has a reach that very few can match.

His work over the past year led, eventually, to some Westminster commitments to tackle the issue. Progress has been mixed. Many charities and other organisations will be able to sympathise with that feeling.

Locally, Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI) has been at the forefront of campaigns to tackle holiday hunger – with a lot of effort, and some success.

In December, CiNI released an evaluation report of holiday clubs it has helped to run (along with partner organisations) across the UK. These clubs targeted children from less-well-off backgrounds and gave them access to “food and enriching activities”.

The idea behind these clubs is quite simple – address several problems at once. Children get fed, and the clubs would also help address a relative learning/development loss from weeks off school that “may contribute to the gap in educational attainment between children from different socio-economic backgrounds”.


CiNI has been organising holiday clubs since 2016. This evaluation stems from a snapshot look of four clubs, taken in 2019.

The findings “suggest that funding from Children in Northern Ireland has made a positive difference in the lives of children attending the clubs”.

One criticism of the provision offered was the limited range of food. This might sound like a terrible black mark but most importantly - and perhaps telling about what happens in the absence of any provision – the diets of children involved in the clubs still improved, despite these circumstances.

Per the report: “Provision in club settings was limited potentially due to lack of formal qualifications of staff charged with delivering food and inadequate or complete lack of kitchen facilities but the clubs were able to reduce the amount of unhealthy food children consumed during the summer.

“Future holiday club provision should therefore incorporate providing advice, guidance and support to holiday club staff on food to be provided in holiday club settings and supporting clubs to access kitchen facilities.”

The report notes that measuring any educational progress by children involved in these clubs is very difficult. Indeed, doing that properly would require consistent testing over months and years, including comparisons with both better-off peers and probably a control group.

This is not ideal, but it reflects the reality (bear in mind Northern Ireland as a whole is still in the process of creating its own database of longitudinal educational outcomes, which are the best way to track the effects of schemes to raise attainment within certain groups).

There are good reasons to believe the holiday camps are of real educational value. Indeed, this is included in the evaluation, which identified several many qualitative benefits from the holiday camps, outlined succinctly in the reports Executive Summary.


Beyond making efforts to address learning loss, CiNI’s report lists many further benefits.

This vary from the broad to the narrow, and between benefits that directly benefit children and those which will do so indirectly, such as by allowing lived experience to inform future policy, or that the camps allow agencies to pool budgets and deliver through partnerships.

The camps have allowed children to learn skills from baking to CPR, helped them make friends (including via social activites, like drama), and in general pursue broader experiences than they would be able to at home.

Per the report: “Children reported that holiday club was a safe place to be where they would not be bullied. For instance, one child said: ‘for me I was like I wasn’t confident enough to leave the house sometimes, I was always, I would always get bullied and be called speckky and all so I would and here no one is like that, they’re all really nice people’.”

There are plenty of positives for holiday clubs, with room also for improvement. These programmes are administered locally, with support from CiNI or similar organisations. While this is not a top-down scheme, it is still a nascent one and lessons on good practice should be sought out and welcomed – which is the point of the evaluation report.

Unfortunately, there are many hungry children who could do with help. And, for anyone not following this week’s news, while the government in London made promises to provide food for those who need it, there is evidence that those efforts are woeful.

Cue another intervention from Mr Rashford – who people should realise is extremely serious about making all this work – and hopefully more progress.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a famous footballer to open some doors that third sector organisations have been banging on for years.

However, those who have spent years working to combat holiday hunger clearly are dedicated and will accept victories as they come.

CiNI’s report shows that holiday camps can be a solid ground to improve the outcomes of less-well-off children in several ways.

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