Carolyn O'Grady reports.
THIS MONTH school dinners are an issue on every head's plate. Local council meals budget money must be delegated to secondary schools and to primary schools if the governors approve. The pressure is on to improve facilties, attract more children, and give them better food.
Though some schools will continue with the arrangements made by their councils, others are set to go it alone, or in partnership with others. This applies especially to secondary schools which, because of their size, can hope to reap economies of scale.
Seaham, a Durham comprehensive, has joined a consortium of city schools to call for tenders from private caterers. They will be helped by local authority officers who, acting as consultants, will draw up the specifications.
"My governors asked if we wished to improve the service, and if we felt we could. As our answer was 'yes' to both of those questions, it was decided to commission tenders from three to four school meal caterers, including our present one," says headteacher Bob Dingle.
The participating schools will still get an individual service, however, as within the general tender each one can make its own specifications. Thus, Seaham wants a cashless payment system to reduce queues and help eliminate the stigma attached to free school meals - entitlements are programmed into a swipe card and therefore less visible. Swipe cards will also enable the school to monitor what the children are eating.
Over the past few years, private catering companies have run an increasing number of meals services for schools and education authorities.
Often desperate to refurbish ancient kitchens and canteens, schools also want to promote good eating habits and raise the take-up of meals, especially of free meals. National research has revealed that about 300,000 pupils entitled to do so do not take them. Fear of bullying is thought to be a principle reason.
Promoting healthier eating has taken on particular importance, as in April 2001 the Government's new nutritional standards for school meals are due.
Ministers have been accused f watering down the standards - refusing to ban certain foods, for example, or to monitor packed lunches. However, underlying the proposals are reports such as that from the New Policy Institute think tank which points out that while "most attempts to improve children's educational achievements have focused on the quality of teaching ... children can be undernourished, come to school tired or hungry, and be unable to benefit from teaching".
But, if nutrition is to help raise standards, then schools have to attract more customers - only 40 per cent of pupils now eat school dinners compared with 66 per cent in 1979 - which in turn means improving the image of the canteen.
Southwark, south London, is heading up one of the most ambitious schemes. In a public-private partnership under the Government's New Deal for Schools initiative, it is bidding for some pound;4.2 million of government funding to supplement pound;3.3m which has been pledged by the catering company, Chartwells. The money will be spent on upgrading facilities in nursery, primary and secondary schools throughout the borough.
"This is the kind of investment school meal services need after a long period of acute under-investment. It will make sure we have the infrastructure to deliver meals to happy, healthy young consumers well into the future," said Alan Husband, Southwark's special projects and development manager. He is "quietly confident" that all schools will sign up to the deal.
Warwick Park, a Southwark secondary with 70 per cent of pupils entitled to free meals, has been piloting the scheme. Average meal numbers increased by 31 per cent and the amount children spent went up 15 per cent, with the introduction of a high-street-style cafe environment, colourful decor and a wider choice of food.
"Students need to be fed and fed well," says headteacher Miriam Kerr. "The quality of food at Warwick Park is now as good as the best fast food. On top of which they are being introduced to good balanced food and new foods, including Mexican and Chinese dishes, which in a multicultural school is important."
The favourite dishes are still pizzas and hamburgers "but these are cooked more healthily and children are getting more adventurous in their eating habits," she added.