Evidence that nutrition can make a difference to pupils' learning is turning round policy on providing school dinners. Jon Slater reports
AFTER a decade of decline, school dinners are back on the menu for policy-makers. The cuisine may never match that at Islington restaurants, but new Labour ministers are convinced that quality school meals make a big difference to pupils' education and health.
It is more than a century since school dinners were first introduced. Manchester set the ball rolling in 1879 by giving free meals to "destitute and badly nourished children." But it took the recognition of the poor physique of volunteers during the Boer War to force national action. By 1914 the exchequer was covering half the cost of school meals. And in 1940 a national policy was introduced covering staffing, nutrition, pricing and funding.
Despite the image of school dinners as stodgy and unappetising, the decades that followed were the golden age for school meals. In 1970 more than two-thirds of children in England and Wales ate them. But costs were rising and at the end of the Seventies the Government set targets to halve the pound;380 million annual cost of the service.
Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, school meals were deregulated and contracted out. First education authorities were allowed to scrap the service (as long as they provided free meals for those children entitled to them), then children of parents claiming family credit lost their right to free school meals.
Local authority spending fell by 58 per cent between 1979 and 1992 - a real-terms cut of pound;591m. Inevitably, quality suffered and prices rose, dinner halls were replaced by cash cafeterias. While pupils of the past could swap horror stories about lumpy custard, fatty stews or Seventies curries, Thatcher's children were the first generation to be fed a diet of junk food at school.
Pupils (perhaps under pressure from their parents) responded by opting out - preferring a packed lunch or a trip to the local chippie. Only about 40 per cent of pupils now eat school dinners compared with about 66 per cent in 1979. Kate Foley, national officer at public-sector union Unison, blames the cut in funding for school dinners' decline. "All the evidence shows that demand for school dinners is very price-sensitive," she said.
A new wave of research highlighting the link between diet and learning has forced Labour to take action. In the past, school meals were seen as a way of bridging the health gap between the children of the rich and poor. They are now seen as playing a key role in raising standards.
As a recent report from the New Policy Institute, a think-tank which focuses on public services, says: "Most attempts to improve children's educational achievement have focused on the quality of teaching. However, the state of the child is also important and often ignored. Children may be undernourished, come to school tired or hungry and be unable to benefit from teaching."
It is a very real problem. One in four British schoolchildren do not get a hot meal in the evening and more than 400,000 skip breakfast each day. In both cases this is more likely among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
So school meals can play a key role in helping children succeed. And not just the traditional lunch. The NPI report, Fit for School, concentrates on breakfast clubs, which provide young people with a nutritious first meal of the day and a chance to do work before school. International evidence suggests that the clubs reduce both absenteeism and lateness. Problem-solving, memory, visual perception and creative thinking also improve.
Ministers are now trying to fetter the free market in the hope of persuading pupils and their parents of the benefit of the school canteen. Nutritional regulations - complete with recipe suggestions - have been drawn up and will come into force next April.
But there are concerns that the nutritional guidelines may not be enough. Unison is concerned about what will happen when meals budgets are delegated to schools. Ms Foley said, "This is not a problem headteachers want to deal with. It will be difficult for them to take on responsibilities such as hygiene and food safety." The potential problems were shown earlier this year when a school in Bracknell hit the headlines after a boy was scalded by spilled custard.
Perhaps equally harmful to children, schools could meet the guidelines on the cheap, and cream off resources for other areas. "The regulations need to be sufficiently rigorous. There will be a temptation for headteachers to raid meals budgets," said Ms Foley.
Joanna Blythman, author of The Food Our Children Eat, is also sceptical about the difference guidelines can make. "They are applied within the limits of mass-catering processed foods; they rarely mean that children are given more fresh fruit and vegetables or more wholesome basic ingredients," she said.
The advocates of healthy eating face an uphill struggle. The typical teenager's diet is full of fat, salt and additives. Kids, especially boys, enjoy junk food. If they cannot get it at the school canteen they are likely to go elsewhere.
A survey last year by caterers Gardner Merchant found that crisps and chocolate bars were the favourite elements of a packed lunch. Burger bars and fish and chip shops were the most popular places to eat out. And despite the rise of the salad bar, pizzas, chips and burgers are still the favourite school dinners.
To try to change children's eating habits is to work against the grain of popular culture. Around 95 per cent of food adverts on children's television are for junk food.
A government trying to avoid accusations of being a nanny state - while attracting private finance to education - is unlikely to clamp down on advertising. Even the slightly desperate attempts of ministers to suggest "exciting" alternatives such as "fighting fit fruit salads" were condemned by the Tories as "nannyish".
But this is not to say nothing can be done. Schools could at least give pupils who want to eat healthily the chance to do so. According to Joanna Blythman in many schools this is not the case.
"The overwhelming bulk of food on offer from school catering services is over-processed low-grade stuff from which it is almost impossible to make a wholesome selection, even supposing you were an adult nutritionist, let alone a seven-year-old," she said.
The increasing media focus on healthy eating may help change children's attitudes. But schools can play their part. And those which do could reap their reward when the league tables are published.