Another half-baked plan?

Cooking's return is welcome but many fear vital ingredients are missing. Martin Whittaker reports

Cookery is back on the school menu, say education ministers. From 2008 all secondary students will be entitled to learn how to cook.

But many schools argue that they already have a recipe for success through food technology courses. While the subject's image may be stale, against the odds it is teachers who are putting the food back into food technology.

At Duchess's community high school in Alnwick, Northumberland, increasing numbers of students are choosing the subject at key stage 4 - particularly boys.

This summer, 95 per cent of the school's GCSE food technology students gained A* to C grades, while two students achieved marks among the top five nationally.

In Year 10 the emphasis is on practical work. They learn different methods of making sauces and pastry, as well as pasta, potato and rice-based dishes and desserts.

The school also tries to make Y11 coursework practical and gets around exam board restrictions by making tasks which combine theory and practice.

Diane Murphy, head of food technology, is one of a nationwide team of trainers for the Food Partnership Programme, a professional development scheme for primary teachers.

She says many of her GCSE students use their kitchen skills at home and are confident enough to cook for themselves by the time they leave.

"I believe the Government's proposed entitlement to learn to cook is already happening here through our food technology courses," she said.

Food technology nationally took a battering in March following a critical Ofsted report. Subsequent headlines focused on the claim that pupils were more likely to learn how to design food packaging than how to prepare a meal.

The report said teaching of the subject was hindered by the design and technology curriculum, a shortage of food teachers, lack of funding for ingredients and over-large groups for practical work.

In the best classes pupils cooked or took part in practicals every week.

But the curriculum ranged from excellent to poor, depending on the time and other resources schools gave to the subject.

A recent Government announcement of a package of measures to improve school food includes "an entitlement to learn to cook". This amounts to 24 hours for every secondary school pupil, through dedicated lessons in food preparation, diet and nutrition, hygiene and safety, and wise food shopping.

And changes are being considered by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to make it more practical. The Design and Technology Association has campaigned hard to make the subject compulsory. It said it is disappointed that the new proposal is merely for an entitlement. "It's that vague area of no-man's-land about what entitlement really means,"says Louise Davies, the association's deputy chief executive.

"If you were serious about something you would make it a compulsory part of the national curriculum."

She says a huge issue to be resolved before 2008 is who is going to teach it and where? There is a desperate shortage of food teachers and a lack of training. The association estimates that 15 per cent of secondary schools now have no teachers or facilities for teaching the subject.

"I imagine that schools will work together and those that don't have food technology teachers will probably offer summer schools and evening events for kids," says Louise Davies. "But if it's that important, should that be where it's happening?"

She says there is some excellent practice in food teaching and that those who are teaching it poorly often do so under ridiculous pressures - such as having periods of an hour or less to give practical cooking lessons and without funding for ingredients.

So how do the schools with good food teaching manage it?

Mullion school in Cornwall was the English winner of the British Nutrition Foundation's Active Kids Get Cooking competition this summer. Students created dishes using fish and wholegrain foods.

Bridget King, Mullion's head of food technology, is helped by a timetable which gives her a block of two 50-minute periods.

She says: "I put heavy emphasis on practical work and giving the children skills they can use for life."

Balcarras school in Cheltenham has also been pre-empting the recent proposal, putting more emphasis on food preparation skills, diet and health. In Y8 and 9, students study food for 12 weeks, and during activities week they can choose a range of options to develop cooking skills.

Food teacher Cathryn Saunders also works with primary schools helping with schemes of work and practical skills. But she says the proposed entitlement is not enough to equip a child with basic skills for life.

"How is this going to work in schools that no longer deliver food as part of the curriculum and have removed their facilities or have no staff?" she says.

Would the cause of food in schools be helped if more headteachers cooked? While there are no specific figures relating to professions, according to the Food Standards Agency, only half of UK adults claim they cook a meal at least once a day. Lack of time was the reason for not cooking.

Graham Turner, head of Bedale high school in North Yorkshire, a runner-up in this year's Active Kids Get Cooking awards, lists cooking among his interests.

But his participation in school is limited to occasionally tasting what his students make.

He says his students already have an entitlement to learn to cook thanks to his food technology staff, who get technical support and work in well-equipped rooms.

The school has also introduced GCSE catering and hosts practical demonstrations from local restaurant chefs.

"If it's going to be an entitlement, there's got to be investment in many schools," he said. "I guess we're one of the lucky ones."

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