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Feeding time at the school

When my sister and I were small, my mother showed us how to use a knife, fork and spoon. Our family ate together and we talked to each other. We were taught the rudiments of dining etiquette, like eating the main course before dessert, not slurping our orange juice and not leaving the table without asking. How things have changed. Most families don't eat together now, and children have become increasingly fussy about what they will or won't consume.

Which is probably why settling new reception children into the lunch routine is such a task. The first few days are always the worst and, as additional adults are desperately needed, I go down to help. The children have been taken to wash their hands - no mean feat in itself - and they are ushered into a sort of line in front of the serving counter, where they collect their cutlery. Darren isn't sure what to take, but he is satisfied with a spoon, which he finds he is able to bend. This gives him much pleasure as he moves up the line. Others find the task difficult and utensils constantly clatter to the floor, especially as the children have to carry their plastic "aeroplane" plates at the same time.

Our meals offer a good variety of food, but this poses a problem for the new children as they don't know what to choose. Patiently, the supervisors help them and then the children are steered to a seat ... except Bekir, special needs, who wanders off into the corridor. David walks too rapidly to his table and a gravy trail drips from his tray. A lunch superviser follows quickly behind with a mop, before somebody slips and a mother with her eye on the main chance decides to sue.

Once seated, myriad problems emerge. Rahmid refuses to eat anything at all. His teacher is summoned, but even she can't coax him. We tell him he must at least try something and he begins to scream with increasing intensity. Other children look, but we can't let him go because they might refuse to eat too. Meanwhile, Amit is entertaining everyone by rolling peas down his knife and into his mouth.

Most children are busily tucking into their ice cream first. And, once they've finished that, they're too full to tackle the remaining food on their plates. That's the trouble with aeroplane plates that hold everything, but if we had separate dishes we'd never get through the serving. Michael enjoys his ice cream so much he turns and tucks into his neighbour's while she isn't looking. Elsewhere, Anthony tries poking a chip into his partner's ear. Geshim seems to get much pleasure from spooning his mashed potato directly onto the floor.

Now comes the hardest task of all, one we've practised in the hall before lunchtime, hoping everything would therefore go smoothly - though we quickly realise our optimism knows no bounds. The idea is simple. When a child has finished, he carries his tray to the washing area. He scrapes his food into a scraps bowl, drops his cutlery into the hot water bowl, and stacks his plate. Before long, the hot water contains a great deal of food, cutlery is sticking out of the scraps and the plates rapidly escalate into a badly matched stack. Which topples over. The cooks groan and the teachers make a mental note to do some work on shape-stacking. But, fingers crossed, things will improve. They have to, because we've got to find time to educate the children too ...

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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