'Badly-fed Scottish bodies don't move for you'

31st July 2009 at 01:00
You can't say you don't like something if you haven't tried it 12 times - with an approach like that, it's no wonder St Kenneth's Primary has won this year's health and well-being award

Brightly-coloured tablecloths and vases of flowers decorate the tables, with French doors leading into a garden. On good days, diners eat al fresco.

The restaurant at St Kenneth's Primary in Greenock opened in 2008 at the start of the school year. But it is only pupils who clear their plates who get access and are allowed to skip the dinner queue, with the others confined to the less sophisticated canteen. Staff say they have never known an incentive like it.

"When we started, we had seven children in the restaurant. Now we have 85 and 15 in the canteen, which means we have 85 pupils who are clearing their plates every day," says headteacher Isobel Delussey, speaking after the school scooped the health and well-being award at this year's Scottish Education Awards.

The school has gone from throwing out around 6kg of wasted food to 0.5kg.

The bid to make the Inverclyde school healthier was prompted by the area's poor health record. The authority has a lower-than-average life expectancy and significantly higher rates of cancers, coronary heart disease and heart attacks and strokes. Respiratory and digestive diseases are particularly prevalent.

St Kenneth's started its health improvement campaign in 2005, introducing a structured weekly running programme; now every child from P2-7 can run 2km without stopping. "We decided to use teachers' non-contact time to introduce the whole-school running programme," explains depute head Pat Nicol. "We wanted to see if we could make an impact on the health of the children. Sometimes we do hill work, sometimes sprint finishes, or runs of 1km or 1.5km."

Twice a year, pupils take part in a 2km run in aid of the Children's Hospice Association Scotland, with each child set the challenge of beating their personal best. The school has Scotland's top runner for her age group, Emma Mitchell in P6.

St Kenneth's then began improving nutrition by explaining to pupils that healthy food provided the fuel their bodies needed to get good results.

"Badly-fed Scottish bodies just don't move for you," points out Ms Delussey.

A lot of the children were "food phobic", but their desire to eat in the restaurant has been "unbelievable", says Ms Nicol. "It's been softly, softly, trying new foods and building their tolerance. The determination from the children to make themselves accept these foods is amazing."

"They use whatever technique works for them - holding their nose, whatever," adds Ms Delussey.

Marianne Allan (P5) says: "In my younger years, I went home for lunch because I never liked anything; now I'm open to trying new things. As Mrs Nicol says, you can't say you don't like something until you've tried it 12 times."

Jenna Gillespie (P7) also admits to a murky past as a fussy eater, but her packed lunches regularly score five stars, which means at the end of the week her name goes into a raffle and she could win a small prize - Pounds 1, a ball or a game: "My problem was lettuce. I never thought it had any taste, but I ended up trying it and now I eat it."

The school has installed water-coolers in every classroom and pupils take part in meditation and massage.

Now St Kenneth's is determined to harness the same passion for food that has grown out of pupils' desire to eat in the restaurant and use it for learning. There are plans to create a classroom that all will aspire to work in. What will it look like? Ms Delussey and Ms Nicol are not sure - all they know is the right incentive can lead to dramatic results.

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