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Take on the munch bunch

Governors can and must get involved in what goes on in the school canteen. Alison Shepherd reports

Nobody, unless they have spent the last six months hibernating, could have failed to notice that childhood obesity is the medical concern du jour.

And as worries grow, headteachers and governors can no longer afford to think that what children eat is the concern solely of parents and medics.

Last September the National Governors' Council sent out a questionnaire to governing bodies countrywide to assess what was being done in schools to teach children about healthy eating. Some of the results surprised Jean McEntire, the council's chief executive.

From the survey which analysed the first 100 replies, it appears that governors have failed to see beyond curriculum issues, such as how KS1 pupils should be taught the healthy food fundamentals.

"We read again and again governors saying that it would be trespassing on the headteacher's management role," she said. "It has become clear we need to help governors understand the strategic role they have in ensuring that their school has a healthy eating policy. It is about creating a framework and an ethos within their role."

To rectify this, the council is working with the Food Standards Agency to create policies to support healthy-eating schools. There will also be help for schools that have taken the first step but are facing the second obstacle - convincing parents.

Many respondents said parents were one of the biggest barriers to implementing a policy and some were opposed to what they saw as interference in family life.

Cost, convenience and concerns that their children would not eat fruit and vegetables were all put forward as reasons why parents were not happy with children being encouraged to bring in healthy snacks or lunches.

Recognising that this was likely to be an issue, the National Governors'

Council has issued a booklet with the questionnaire. It contains lunchbox tips and menu plans for four weeks of healthy eating, drawn up by the FSA.

The council hopes that the booklet will help governors win over parents by showing that healthy lunchboxes do not necessarily involve greater time or cost.

"It was clear that those schools that took parents with them were the most successful," said Ms McEntire. "If you issue an edict parents become hostile and think 'how dare you tell me what to feed my children?' You can win them over if you present the case correctly.We all want what's best for the child."

To win over the parents, Ms McEntire suggests schools need a properly planned strategy of education and encouragement. That brings us back to strategy, which is what governors do best.

Another major concern expressed in the survey was governing bodies'

powerlessness against the might of the firms running public finance initiative contracts in their school.

"I don't think this was ever really thought of when the first PFI schemes came into being. But we would advise any governing body to check contracts and make sure they have some control over the food sold in PFI canteens, for instance. It seems many have signed away their rights and now find it difficult to introduce a food policy, when the vending machines still sell fizzy drinks and chocolate," said Ms McEntire.

The NGC hopes that advice on the catering clauses of PFI contracts will be issued with the guidance given to schools considering a 25-year deal.

There can be no doubt that children who develop a healthy attitude to food will carry it with them through life. The nation's diet needs urgent attention. And according to the NGC and the FSA, school leaders have a role that goes beyond personal, social and health education lessons.

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