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Put healthy eating on the curricular menu

Joe Harvey is director of the Health Education Trust

Today's pupils are tomorrow's parents, but how will they teach their children about preparing food and basic food hygiene? As we face a crisis in child obesity never before witnessed outside the United States, there is an urgent need to break the vicious circle of ignorance and poor diet maintained by our failure to give children this basic life skill during their school years.

There is unanimity at the highest levels that cooking must go into the core curriculum following the review of food technology at key stage 3. As evidence, note the following statements. The first comes from the school meals review panel, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills to advise on school meals standards in 2005. It said: "The panel is convinced that cooking is an essential life skil* I All children should be taught food preparation and practical cooking skills within the curriculum space currently devoted to food technology."

The response from Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, was unequivocal: "I welcome the school meals review panel recommendations that all children should be taught food preparation and practical cooking skills in school."

The view of her successor, Alan Johnson, was equally clear. "Tackling obesity is not just about the food that children eat at school. We must also teach them the skills they need to cook so that they continue to eat healthily in later life," he said last year.

In Wales, the Assembly government is recommending that food preparation and cooking become compulsory at key stages 2 and 3. Why can't we offer our children the same benefits in England?

Despite an apparently united front, what is now proposed and being considered by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and defended by the DfES is to establish "after-school cookery clubs" and offer cooking skills as an option within food technology at KS3. This is a smokescreen to cover a lack of political courage. Those most likely to miss out under these recommendations are those most in need: the children of deprived and disaffected families. Without those skills, choice and control are diminished and a dependency culture reinforced, ensuring increasing vulnerability to the food industry and its pre-prepared, fast-food world.

The "benign neglect" of the past 15 years means it will take time and money to train more teachers, upgrade facilities and re-organise timetables. But it will be more costly in healthcare, damage to the economy and human misery if the Government fails to take this opportunity to give children the chance of a healthy future.

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