Are school dinners healthy? The proof is in the pudding

Scottish schools have strict nutritional guidelines – so how come they are still serving deep-fried food and cakes?

Emma Seith

How healthy are school dinners? The proof is in the pudding...

Pudding may be a British institution but it should be banned at school lunches. No more sponge, no more cake, no more crumble and, yes, no more custard.

Sugar and the amount we feed our children will be the scandal of our times. Just as we marvelled at the alcohol and cigarettes motored through in a typical working day in TV’s Mad Men – set in 1960s New York – people will look back and marvel at our ability to shovel sugar down our necks despite the warnings that had been coming thick and fast for years from the experts.

Parents might (unconvincingly) plead ignorance but there can be no such excuse for schools, whose meals are prepared by caterers who are experts in nutrition.

But as our story in this week's Tes Scotland reveals, schools are still serving everything from deep-fried food and plates of chips to sugar-laden carrot cake.

Scotland has strict nutritional guidelines for its schools but they simply have not kept pace with the latest advice on free-sugar intake. This week the education secretary, John Swinney, launched a consultation on the school food nutrition regulations, but what is the point in having the standards if parents receive no feedback on how well they are being applied?

Wendy Wills, professor of food and public health at the University of Hertfordshire, believes the current nutritional standards – which are already among the strictest in the world – mask the reality of lunches in schools: deep fat fryers are still spitting away.

Wills – who has researched school meals in Scotland – and the programme lead at Obesity Action Scotland, Lorraine Tulloch, are calling for inspections of school food to be published. This year Education Scotland’s health and nutrition inspectors have visited over 50 schools, yet their findings have barely made it into the public domain.

Nutritional value

The letter to parents following the inspection of Glasgow’s Hillhead High in January this year is hugely positive. It talks about pupils benefiting from “very high-quality learning experiences” and achieving “very well”. It also talks about the “outstanding, purposeful leadership across the school”. Ultimately, on the four key quality indictors that Education Scotland homes in on, the school receives three “very goods” and one “excellent”.

However, at the same time as Hillhead was inspected for its education offering, Education Scotland health and nutrition inspectors looked at the food served in the school – everything from the snacks on offer to the meals.

This aspect of the school inspection receives no mention in the letter to parents, despite the fact that inspectors were concerned about the nutritional value of some of the main meals on the lunch menu, the “high volumes of processed meat” being served and the fact that home baking was being served for breakfast.

That these findings – which Tes Scotland uncovered through a freedom of information request – went unreported helps us to understand why poor quality school food remains an issue. Healthy school food is simply not a priority. It is an afterthought, as Professor Wills puts it.

Glasgow City Council’s school meal provider, Cordia (Services) LLP, says that as a result of that inspection, three items have been removed from Hillhead’s lunch menu.

But how much more pressure would there be for catering companies and councils to up their game if parents were made aware of exactly what their children were being served? Could we not also share best practice because we know that some schools and councils are getting this right already?

As a first step – and to send out a clear signal – can we start by ripping down the veil of nostalgia surrounding school puddings? It is time we got a grip and puddings got their just deserts.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for TES Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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