A quick straw poll of five to 15-year-olds reveals a prejudice against fish in even very young children. Fish is "smelly", "slimy" and definitely up there with green vegetables as food children love to hate. As head of food technology at the Emmbrook School in Wokingham, Claire Nicol knows the problem well. "The only things they are willing to try are tinned tuna or fish fingers," she says.
Yet nutritionists routinely tell us that fish is one of the best things we can eat, especially oily fish, rich in precious Omega-3 fatty acids, which nourish developing brains and have been credited with helping children learn more effectively. With schools the focus of the national drive to retune a generation's tastebuds and get them eating healthily, the heat is on in the kitchen. The trouble is that many children are deeply conservative about their food. Unless schools can persuade pupils to try new things, the Healthy Schools Initiative will fail.
Enter Charlie Caisey, retired fishmonger. At 75 he's an unlikely figure in the healthy eating zeitgeist, and nearly old enough to be Jamie Oliver's granddad. Yet Charlie has been campaigning for years to raise standards in the fish trade, arguing that with the decline of the trained fishmonger everyone is getting a poor deal. His ambition to see a bespoke training school, serving both industry and the public, educating everyone in its orbit about matters piscine, came to fruition a few years ago when the Billingsgate Training School opened.
Located by the wholesale fishmarket in London's Docklands, the school welcomes groups of children from key stage 2 onwards. Many schools have benefited from its service. Some have used visits to help teach food technology and PE at GCSE. Others have taken students with special needs as part of the life skills curriculum. In one borough, an after-school cookery club for sixth-formers took a health and hygiene course, while in another, KS2 students learned about fish as part of a healthy diet. Additionally, the school visits students in hospital schools who are unable to travel. At the Evelina Hospital School, Charlie has become a regular and popular visitor, supporting the school's healthy eating initiative and a range of cross-curricular lessons.
Claire took a mixed group of Year 11 students studying food technology and Year 9 students considering it as an option. "Billingsgate Training School is fantastic," she enthuses. "Everything about the visit was brilliant.
Nothing we could do at school could have so much impact and motivate them so much."
Neil MacGregor, assistant headteacher at the London Nautical School is equally positive, although his students' first reaction to the market was not promising. "We took a group of about a dozen of our Year 10 boys. They are some of the most challenging students, disaffected and demotivated.
Although they live in London they had never been near Billingsgate. As we got near they were very vocal about the smell."
The smell also made an impact on the Year 11 students from Swiss Cottage School for children with special needs. "Their initial reaction when they smelled the fish was to say 'oh it stinks, it stinks'," says teacher Eileen Kernick, "But once inside they were captivated."
Visits vary according to the children's needs and can be tailored to suit individual schools, but most follow a similar structure. First, pupils see a display of different kinds of fish. They discuss the varieties they know and learn to identify others, where they are caught and about fishing limits. Charlie, or another fishmonger, demonstrates how to gut, fillet and skin fish. Next comes a cookery demonstration. "Some kids get anxious when they hear they're going to watch someone prepare fresh fish, or prepare it themselves," says chef Geli Carney. "But generally they come to my session fired up by what they have seen. For some it's about seeing some amazing things that nature does. For others it's an opportunity to get close up with something they might eat."
For the Swiss Cottage students, planning the journey by public transport to Canary Wharf was an important part of the experience. They took photographs throughout and used them for recall when writing reports for their progress files. "They were all involved in what was going on," says Eileen Kernick.
"They could volunteer, see everything and ask questions. They really responded well to Charlie and enjoyed the knife skills tremendously."
The hands-on approach also worked well with the boys from London Nautical.
"Some of them were quite squeamish when the fish were being gutted, but getting down to cooking was a fabulous experience," confirms Neil. "They were absolutely enthused by the visit and talked about it for weeks afterwards. The boys are doing sports qualifications, and healthy eating is a component. We don't have any cooking facilities in school, but at parents' evening I learned all of the boys had cooked at least one of the dishes they tried at Billingsgate Training School for their families."
Neil is interested to see the link develop. "It has so much potential.
There are obvious spin-offs into science. Our school is already a sports college, encouraging positive attitudes to health. It's also going through a major development at the moment. There's talk of a cafe in the future run by the pupils, so we could link it into careers in the catering and fish industries."
Claire says: "We certainly don't have the budget in schools to afford the fish we experienced on this visit. We saw seven dishes being prepared, and the best part for the children was they could help. They were really engaged and proud of their achievements. At the tasting session the pupils discussed the dishes and began to question their initial views. Before the visit they had been reluctant to cook fish, but their whole perception of fish had been challenged. They were confident about handling fish, preparing and cooking it. The enthusiasm of all the people at Billingsgate rubbed off on us. To sum up, it was educational, a great day and to be recommended."
*For further information about Billingsgate Training School, online resources, links to associated sites and more, tel: 020 7517 3548 www.seafoodtraining.org *Duncan Lucas and Sue Hallman of Passionate About Fish are keen to promote education about fish, covering all aspects of the fishing industry, from sea to plate. They give customised sessions in schools with an emphasis on hands-on experience. Tel: 01276 504964 Email: email@example.com
*Details on the Healthy Schools Initiative www.wiredforhealth.gov.uk