No such thing as a free lunch

Offering staff a meal to sit down to lunch with pupils started as a healthy-eating initiative, but headteacher Tim Baker quickly discovered that it had a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing, too
1st September 2017, 12:00am
Magazine Article Image


No such thing as a free lunch

When you walk into the dinner hall at Charlton Manor Primary School, you will see a scene that resembles a family restaurant.

Pupils help themselves to the fresh salad bar and then carry their plates to round tables, where they sit with members of staff. Waiters from Years 4, 5 and 6 ensure that the tables are set and that water jugs are full. There is a buzz in the air, as children and teachers talk to one another about their interests and about the food they are eating.

Charlton Manor, of which I am head, is in a deprived area of south-east London. Many of our pupils come from broken or crowded homes, so it has always been a priority for us to teach children to value themselves and others. We are always looking for ways to embed qualities like empathy, respect and a sense of security.

There is no doubt that one of the most important factors in a child’s development is spending quality time with trusted adults. Traditionally, sitting down to eat dinner together as a family has provided an opportunity to do this in the home.

Mealtimes give children the chance to talk about a subject of their choice, which could be an issue that is worrying them or an achievement for which they want recognition. What’s more, being present for discussions between adults helps children to learn acceptable behaviours and develop their sense of right and wrong.

The opportunities for learning don’t start when you sit down at the table. Time spent helping to prepare a meal is important as well. Requests such as “Could you please lay the table?” or “I need help peeling the potatoes” might not always be met with enthusiasm, but they model the language of working together and help children to feel valued.

All too often, these opportunities don’t happen at home. Children may spend their time on devices in their bedrooms or watching television. For some, the primary interaction they have at home is with online “friends” that they know only virtually.

When children are hungry, they might walk down the stairs for food only to be told: “Go and get something from the fridge,” or “Go and buy something at the shops.”

This is the day-to-day reality for some of the pupils at our school. The main message they hear at home is “go”. They do not feel valued by the key adults in their lives and as a result, they don’t confide in them. Instead, they turn to their virtual friends for support and direction.

It is crucial that children have the chance to talk about their issues with responsible adults. Where this is missing in the home, schools need to step in. However, the pressures of teaching don’t always allow for the type of unstructured conversations in which children feel comfortable enough to raise concerns. Somehow, we need to create the space for this in an already busy timetable.

That’s where our approach to school dinners comes in. We have discovered that lunchtime is the perfect opportunity to give valuable time and attention to those pupils who need it most.

Quality time with pupils

The staff at Charlton Manor receive a free meal if they choose to sit in the dinner hall and eat lunch with the pupils. Our school chef and his team provide healthy, home-cooked food each day and although eating with pupils is not compulsory, teachers have enthusiastically taken me up on the offer to spend more quality time with the children they teach.

I often observe that the children who come from home environments that may present challenges in terms of quality time with an adult - such as being one of several children in a household, belonging to a split family, getting used to a parent’s new partner or having a new baby in the house - are the ones who rush to the tables with the staff sitting at them.

As well as learning more about the children’s lives, the adults are able to reinforce acceptable mealtime behaviour and encourage pupils to try different foods, which they may not have encountered at home.

Meanwhile, pupils have the chance to talk to their teachers in a less formal setting, which helps to strengthen relationships and has a knock-on effect in improving behaviour.

Yes, we have had to change our timetable to stagger the lunches and enable the new approach, but the adjustment has proven to be worth it.

The incentive of a free meal for teachers to eat with pupils was originally part of an initiative to promote healthy eating, but it has quickly become apparent that giving children the opportunity to eat with their teachers is addressing an even greater need: supporting their mental health and wellbeing. Surely that beats eating a stale sandwich in the staffroom any day.

Tim Baker is headteacher at Charlton Manor Primary School in London

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters
Most read
Most shared