Over the 30 years and more during which I have been a secondary school teacher and a parent of two girls and two boys, I have seen a number of fads and fancies in nutritional advice and in the pattern of childhood eating. Having grown up myself in the days of a well-balanced midday school lunch, perhaps overcooked but nutritionally sound, I was surprised to find fairly early on in my teaching that a canteen junk food culture had taken over.
In my first job in Bristol in the early 1970s, staff and children sat together in groups of eight and served each other from central dishes in what now looks like an extremely civilised way. By the time I had taken some time out of school teaching and returned as an occasional supply teacher, the situation was very different. Local financial management of schools and the separation of school food from the education budget meant that school food had to be sold at a profit. Of the half dozen schools that I taught in during this period, all had pursued the lowest common denominator and were producing chips with everything. A salad leaf was rarely seen and fruit was not high on the agenda either. My worst moments were at a school which received its food from a communal kitchen which supplied a whole number of schools in south Bristol. I have to confirm that it is absolutely the case that children were offered the same meal every day with one variation only; it was chips, baked beans and either fishfingers or a greasy burger.
Once I moved to Surrey and began working in local schools, I discovered that school caterers were cashing in on the well-known hearty appetites of adolescents by providing a “meal” both in morning break and at lunchtime. By then I was a parent and had a far more urgent interest in what children were eating. I was disturbed to see one particularly overweight and acne ridden boy tucking in twice a day to the same menu which consisted of cola, chips, warmed through greasy pasties or sausage rolls and a large cake with synthetic cream and jam piped around the edges.
Jamie Oliver sometimes gets a bad press. His messianic zeal is easy to lampoon but actually I think he is right and I think he is doing the nation a good service. Although initially the take up of his new healthier school meals was not encouraging, the message has very definitely got through. You are what you eat and bodies and brains need the right kind of fuel. From an ecological, cost and nutritional viewpoint, school food has made enormous progress in the last five years. I and my fortunate school colleagues eat restaurant standard food every day with a range of choice. It is certainly the case that boarding schools have always focused more than day schools but the quality we enjoy is something very special.
There will always be die-hards for whom any outside ideas about things that could be described as private within the family, e.g. food, will be an anathema. If the famous Rotherham mother seen posting junk food through the rails to her child a year or two ago still wishes to do that, there is nothing anybody can do to dissuade her. However, I sense a sea change in the way that young people think about food and as the mother of two sons as well as two daughters, all of whom enjoy cooking, I can say that I think Jamie’s laddish persona and “cooking is cool for blokes” message has actually made it okay for boys to enjoy cooking.
School cookery classes need to be liberated from the straightjacket of examination courses which focus more on food analysis than on actually cooking something decent to eat. However, although schools have a part to play, the place to learn to cook and appreciate good food is the home and I hope that the plethora of cooking and nutritional based TV programmes is encouraging more families to enjoy cooking together. In my school, an off-shoot of this happy development is a family business called Kids Can Cook which started off in our Junior School as an occasional project and has now spread throughout the South of England. Even schools which have very limited cooking facilities can offer these courses to even the youngest children. Being offered an avocado dip made by a nursery child was one of my highlights of the last academic year. Anyone who continues to believe that institutional food is dull and depressing is welcome to get in touch; lunch at The Royal could be a revelation.
Lynne Taylor-Gooby Headmistress, The Royal School, Haslemere, Surrey Daycare and Nursery for Girls and Boys Pre-Prep, Prep, Senior and Sixth Form for Girls www.royal-school.org