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Children serving lunch?

It's not a question you would expect one pupil to ask another, but it happens every day at a London school where children serve each other lunch

It's not a question you would expect one pupil to ask another, but it happens every day at a London school where children serve each other lunch

Original magazine headline: Are you being served?

Elbows on the table, backchat and constant trips to the loo - does this sound like a typical lunchtime at your school? It needn't do. In an era of TV dinners and absent parents, more schools are looking to equip their pupils not just with simple table manners, but the basic life skills they will need when they leave home and set out on their own.

At the new City Academy in Hackney in London, 220 Year 7 pupils serve each other a hot and healthy meal in the dining room every day, while teachers sit among the pupils, encouraging them to show appropriate table manners and engaging them in conversation. Pupils sit in the same groups of six each day, taking it in turns to lay out cutlery, serve other children their food and clear away plates.

The school has adopted some of the strictest and old-fashioned lunch rules. As soon as the meal is served, the deputy head and the other members of staff raise their hands to indicate to the children that they should settle down and sit in silence. After announcements have been made, the children are encouraged to sit quietly for a few seconds, considering those less fortunate than themselves.

It is hard to argue against this study-enabling atmosphere of order and respect. "The chores and responsibilities at lunchtimes teach children to become self-sufficient," says Mark Emmerson, headteacher. "This sort of environment is very important, and where it does not exist at home, we provide it."

Mr Emmerson remembers having to show the children how to lay a table at the beginning of term, and explaining to them how to behave in a family dinner setting. "On the first day, we showed the children where to place the knife and fork and how to serve food to their peers," he says. "We also explained to them the importance of manners, as well as trying new food - eating some vegetables is a must."

According to Mr Emmerson, it was an amalgamation of factors that led him to adopt family-style lunchtimes at the academy, which opened at the beginning of this academic year. "What struck me in the schools I have worked in was a kind of postmodern selfishness - a movement away from rituals and routines," he says. "I think it goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, where people began to take a dogmatic view on anything to do with discipline and structure within schools."

Ally that to the breakdown of the nuclear family, and what you end up with is a vacuum where young people are not quite clear on what is required of them, believes Mr Emmerson: "Children end up leaving school without the basic skills needed to become functioning members of society."

Recent research by Bamp;Q, the home improvement retailer, confirms his suspicions. According to the survey, more than 60 per cent of under 35s wished they could learn more old-fashioned skills, such as re-wiring a plug or bleeding a radiator, from their grandparents. The study suggests that changing family backgrounds, where often both parents juggle hectic schedules, means that day-to-day activities and simple life skills are often sidelined or not passed on.

Unfortunately, this means that schools are often left to fill the gap. But the notion of becoming surrogate parents is a growing concern among many teachers, who argue that the education system shouldn't be held responsible for wider social issues. Rod MacKinnan, head of fee paying Bristol Grammar, describes it as "social engineering," arguing that schools do not have time to do parents' jobs for them.

David Spendlove, lecturer in education at the University of Manchester, agrees that schools have become not just educators but purveyors of domestic education. "This implies that the state has a responsibility for domestic education and child rearing," he says. "We are already seeing schools become extended with before and after-school provision and that role could extend further."

It starts as early as primary, where some children are sent to school without even being properly potty-trained. According to Natasha Collins at Eric (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence), an increasing number of teachers are reluctant to deal with these kinds of incidents.

"Many schools refuse to help children when they have wetting or soiling accidents during the day," says Ms Collins. "Often, teachers say it is not within the school remit to assist these children or this task is not within staff job descriptions."

But as part of its Every Child Matters programme, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has come to expect teachers and the wider school workforce to take responsibility for the progress and development of children beyond simply providing an education.

"Schooling is compulsory because we consider that the skills and knowledge children acquire in school are essential for life - but there are other skills that are just as important," says Dawn Primarolo, children's minister.

"To take your place in the world, you need life skills as well as academic knowledge. And some people, perhaps especially those from difficult backgrounds, need to be given a bit more support to develop those skills."

Mr Emmerson at the City Academy is happy to provide that support. Although he acknowledges the importance of realigning parental responsibility, he thinks teachers have no choice but to take on a parenting role. "We go a lot further than teachers used to, especially during lunch, but this is the case for all teachers in the UK," he says. "There has to be a recognition that schools have been moving away from taking responsibility, and something should be done to redress the balance.

"If we can start the debate with parents, they can then carry on with the routines in the home," he adds. "Equally, if they have suggestions, we are happy to take them on board - working together, we can create a much higher baseline for what can be expected of the children."

Other heads have also made it their mission to adjust day-to-day routines in school so that pupils can learn to become responsible young adults. Jane Lees, headteacher of Hindley High School in Wigan, is one. "If it is not possible to teach these abilities through the curriculum then teachers and heads must work together to ensure that school routines provide more opportunities to instill in pupils a sense of personal responsibility," she says. Her school runs a "buddy" programme where pupils are charged with the responsibility of making new pupils feel welcome.

"In many countries, the emphasis in schools is on nurturing personal development rather than on achievement against a set of criteria or targets imposed from elsewhere," she adds. "Social responsibility, self- sufficiency and practical skills are paramount - we should take this example and try to model our schools on it."

Other teachers argue that putting life skills back on the curriculum would help to tackle young people's lack of self-sufficiency.

"In my school days, and even those of my children, schools still had either domestic science or home economics where pupils were taught to cook, to sew and to wash and iron clothes," says Margaret Morrissey of the campaign group Parents Outloud.

"Things are different now, but parents are not solely responsible - successive governments must share the blame for the dramatic changes in the curriculum. I suggest we get back to a sensible curriculum. On this occasion, the old ways are surely the best."

Early last year, headmaster Richard Cairns did just that by putting life skills back on the curriculum. During a year-long course, pupils at Brighton College were taught everything from ironing and map-reading to how to boil an egg. He initiated the programme because he felt that children often left school without the skills needed to face the "real world".

"Whether they go on to study at university or head straight to their first job, it's important they know how to fend for themselves," he says. "I introduced the course to ensure that my pupils can iron a shirt, boil an egg, behave appropriately at a formal dinner and write a suitable note of thanks to their host afterwards."

The skills covered in the 45-minute classes include putting up a tent, cooking an egg, monitoring heart rates during exercise to keep fit, making a pizza and taking digital photographs. At the beginning of term, only 15 per cent of pupils in the class knew how to iron shirts - the rest either didn't iron them or relied on their mothers.

"Parents may lack time to pass on traditional skills to their offspring," he adds. Even if they did, teenagers may delight in ignoring them. "Parents are immensely pleased we are doing this. Children tend to listen to teachers over parents when it comes to manners."

The compulsory course was introduced last year for the 140 pupils in the first year at Brighton College, where day fees are 15,387 a year, and boarding fees are 24,078.

"One of the advantages of a school like ours is that we are not restricted by the national curriculum," says Mr Cairns. "We have the freedom to do so much more than coach pupils to pass examinations."

However, not every school possesses the freedom or the financial outlay to create courses dedicated to teaching pupils to become self-sufficient.

According to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, we should try to work with the opportunities provided by the national curriculum. "Through all its elements, teachers should seek, where possible, to place learners' study in realistic contexts that relate closely to everyday life," she says. "Subjects such as citizenship and PSHE are particularly well suited to learning of this nature.

"The DCSF has been right to emphasise the fact the progress and development of children in all aspects of their lives is not the sole responsibility of teachers, headteachers and the wider school workforce," she adds. "For children and young people to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding required to become self-reliant and independent adults, the experiences that children and young people receive in their personal and family lives are critical.

"Schools have a very limited window for educating children. While empowering some children, the bypassing of parental rights and responsibilities ultimately robs others of more powerful learning experiences."

This may be the case, but it is the collaboration with parents and carers, as well as other agencies, that will help schools fill the skills gap

Instilling independence

Foundation stage

  • Encourage pupils to do things for themselves. Even aged 4, they can help with small chores.
    • Key stage 1

      • Assign responsibilities such as wiping the board and handing out worksheets - taking ownership of a job teaches them how to work as part of a team and to be responsible.
        • Key stage 2

          • The pupils are now old enough to handle bigger responsibilities, such as peer assessment and mentoring other pupils.
            • Key stage 3

              • Introduce basic money management.
              • Encourage children to keep a diary detailing homework and events - this will help them to organise their time.
                • All ages

                  • Praise your pupils for being resourceful.
                  • Rather than telling them how to handle a situation, let them work through it alone.
                  • Assign the pupils with responsibilities in the classroom, as well as in the dining room.
                    • Various sources.

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