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A west London cookery school is giving children new confidence in their practical achievements. Bernard Adams reports
Behind a nondescript shopfront on a busy high street in Acton, west London, a group of challenging students are expanding their culinary horizons. The students are at the Kids Cookery School, a registered charity set up to provide children of all ages and backgrounds with hands-on opportunities in the kitchen. Three students from Twyford C of E High School have been coming to KCS for four months, so look very much at home in the kitchen as they trim the fat off the lamb for the Lancashire hotpot. They are joined by six less experienced students from another local school, Acton High.
Showing how it is done is John Fernandez, a chef who has worked at the Park Lane Hotel, at Chelsea Village and in France. "I took this job for personal reasons," he explains. "I wanted to spend more time at home but also to give something back to an industry which often has a very low level of training. What I like about working at KCS is that you can see the impact you're having." John is joined by Christina Meehan, one of the school's regular, full-time cookery teachers.
Twyford and Acton use the charity as a resource to support disaffected pupils. It is a challenge KCS takes on willingly. "Many pupils start off borderline and then realise that cooking can be fun and interesting and not a chore," says John, "even if it involves far more maths, science and geography than they ever imagined."
The nine students spend the next two hours chopping, slicing, boiling, mixing, pouring, experimenting and tasting. As well as learning to make individual dishes, they pick up tips and tricks that will serve them well in any kitchen. When the hotpots and the puddings finally come out, there is great pride on their makers' faces. "It's quite an adventure for them and they end up with an achievement they can eat. It does wonders for their confidence," says Barbara Birch, who teaches at Acton High.
Engaging the students seems to have worked. Libby Hayter, a Year 10 student from Twyford, explains why her visits to KCS have made such an impact: "I do lots of cooking at home and what I like is being able to experiment and make up your own recipes."
For Chris Cole, a confident Year 11 student from Twyford, the visits have sparked his ambition to become a chef. "I'm happy that at KCS I learn about new food each week - food that I've never tasted before," he says. "I want to take up cooking as a career, go to college and then get a degree."
But KCS is not just a place for students at odds with school life. Primary pupils come from the age of five. They fill the kitchen to its capacity of 12 and make bread and pizzas. The charity also has flourishing after-school clubs which take students aged from five to 13. "Part of the purpose of these clubs," says Fiona Hamilton-Fairley, the school's principal, "is to give them a good balanced meal. They enjoy eating together and learn independent skills." Fiona started KCS in her home in 1995. It became a registered charity in 1998 and opened in its present premises in April 2003.
"From the outset our aim has been to give children knowledge, basic know-how and an awareness of how to cook. We want to give them a life skill: they don't need to be preached at; they need hands-on experience."
The costs to schools and pupils is minimal. Schools pay a nominal pound;2.50 per head for some of the children but there are also free assisted places. But even those on assisted places are always asked to pay something - even as little as 50p - to help with the cost of ingredients.
Fees: classes pound;15; workshops pound;30; study days pound;50 (including a homemade lunch); after-school cookery club pound;15 (including homemade tea). Maximum 12 students per session, with two qualified teachers