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Let them loose in the kitchen;Focus on Food campaign

Top chef and RSA chairman Prue Leith argues the case for educating pupils about food by getting them cooking

THEREIS an overwhelming case for providing practical cooking in the classroom. Yes, I know that the very word cooking gets up the nose of some food teachers, and I can see why.

For years they have been required to make their subject increasingly academic, relevant to industry, and firmly linked to design and technology, which is fine. Food technology students should understand the industrial processes of industry, grasp the importance of marketing, and have a thorough knowledge of nutrition.

I have no problem with pupils developing their analytical skills by deconstructing chilled meals and evaluating every aspect of them from sauce consistency to the consumer information on the packet. I am not knocking all this, but I would like more. And I would like it for everyone, not just food technology students. I would like children to cook - all children, and especially primary schoolchildren.

What I am pleading for is more real practical cooking in the classroom, followed by eating. I want children to understand the value of good food, and to develop an enthusiasm for it. Not just for healthy food, though obviously that is important, but for the whole social process of preparing, cooking, and eating.

I have never yet met a food technology or home economics teacher who did not want to do more practical cooking with their students. But they cannot. There is not the time nor money and they do not have the space or equipment and the curriculum will not allow it.

Sometimes, especially in primary school, they do not have the skills, and they are terrified of the children getting food poisoning, burning themselves or cutting their fingers off. That we have any cooking going on in schools at all is, I think, a miracle. It is nearly always a testament to the dedication of the food teacher, who is determined that pupils will cook.

Some schools take cooking and eating very seriously indeed. At The Small School in Devon, the 30-odd students all sit down to a proper lunch every day that is cooked by two of their number - one junior and one senior. By the time students reach A-level they are very competent cooks indeed.

The head teacher sees the preparation, cooking, serving and eating of food as a community activity that binds teachers and students, young and older children, races and sexes together.

She also sees the kitchen as an adjunct to the classroom with cooking as a cross-curricular link, making sense of physics (think of mayonnaise), biology (think of yeast cookery) or ethnic studies (think of food taboos), history, geography, maths - you name it.

She uses debate about food production to examine ethical and moral issues, with students discussing factory farming, third world farming and genetic modification of plants amongst others. Food and cooking are deeply embedded into the culture of the school, and all benefit from it.

I am not saying for a minute that The Small School practice could be replicated everywhere. However, I do think there is not a school in the country that would not benefit from a bit of hands-on cooking.

Needless to say I am not talking about going back to the days of Domestic Science iced buns and rock cakes. Education has to be relevant to the real world, and with few households ever sitting down to a meal together (and the rest probably quarrelling furiously when they do) any fantasies of Mum ladling out meat and two veg to Dad and 2.4 children are way off.

But I think we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Because we no longer have to cook (we can live on takeaways and convenience meals, McDonald's and KFC), we think cooking has no purpose, it is not necessary and can be dispensed with. The truth is that if children were allowed to develop their natural enthusiasm for making things, and eating them, all sorts of good things might follow.

The restaurant industry might employ British cooks instead of importing them. Children might develop more of the skills we say are so vital - teamwork, problem-solving, time management, creativity, self-esteem. People might be healthier and cost the NHS less. At the very least children might grow up with a useful life-skill or a satisfying hobby.

And, since proper cooking encourages eating round a table, and that encourages conversation, we might get to talk to our children, or grandchildren, or friends rather more than eating in front of the telly allows.

It may sound pie and overly moral, but there is something in the notion that families that eat together stay together. Certainly families that make pizza together eat very good pizza. And that seems reason enough for learning to cook.

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