Complex twist on the Oliver theme

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Efforts to improve pupils' awareness of healthy eating are far from straightforward, writes Martin Whittaker

When Derwent community school opened a new salad bar last term, the dinner ladies grew weary of the comments.

"Poor Brenda, our cook," says headteacher Frances Glaze. "Everybody said, 'Ah, Jamie's really had an effect.'"

In fact, the local authority-run caterers had been using cook-books and fresh ingredients for some time to produce nutritious meals that children will eat.

While Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has school dinner ladies' skills in her sights to raise the quality of school meals, for heads like Mrs Glaze the issue is hugely complex.

Schools like hers can only improve one small step at a time. The primary school serves white working-class housing estates in Derby. Any suggestion that her children should suddenly develop middle-class palates is almost risible.

"It's like saying, 'I want you to pop off to university next week,' in an area where there's no pattern of employment and no passion for education," she says.

So the school has not banned the burgers - because on days when these items don't appear on the menu, the numbers eating a meal at lunchtime plummet.

And with half of the school's pupils eligible for free school meals, that is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Cooks try to make meals as healthy as possible, serving burgers with salad and jacket potatoes. But Mrs Glaze says it is an uphill struggle.

Despite Brenda the cook's best efforts, a pasta bake made with fresh chicken has to have a separate sauce because many children refuse to eat the sauce. In fact, many pupils will not even touch the pasta. Mrs Glaze says: "On the way out the children are saying to her, 'Go on, give us chips and burgers.' So that's where we're trying to find the middle way."

Schools have welcomed the Government's commitment to transform school meals with pound;220 million in new funding and the creation of a school meals review panel and an interim School Food Trust.

But does Ruth Kelly's assertion that these measures will give schools "no excuse" for serving poor-quality meals really under-estimate the scale of the task in hand? A recent poll of 300 schools by the National College for School Leadership found that 23 per cent said their meals were "awful all round"; 36 per cent said meals were "just edible and filling"; and 16 per cent said they were "tasty but not nutritious". Only 17 per cent were seen as high-quality.

An online debate on the NCSL's website highlights a range of measures that schools are taking as well as suggestions from staff, including new kitchens, removing vending machines and raising the morale of kitchen staff.

Many teachers said packed lunches are often the biggest obstacles to a healthy diet. One teacher told of a pupil's lunchbox that was filled with six Pepperonis and nothing else at all.

Could the NCSL be doing more? At present, it already focuses on healthy eating in its National Professional Qualification for Headship programme and its training for school bursars.

Tony Richardson, NCSL's director of online learning and a former primary head, says the college has been reviewing this in the light of the school meals debate. "It needs to be given even greater emphasis," he admits.

He says the debate is about more than just giving children good food, and that this and healthy lifestyle are linked with another government agenda: improving children's attitudes and behaviour. Schools must also be encouraged to move from a convenience culture to making lunchtime an enjoyable and sociable experience as well as a healthy one. "It can be done, but not overnight," says Mr Richardson. "The reality of schools is that these things are complex and take a real effort on everybody's part."

Chris Dean has some insight into the enormity of the issue. He sits on the new School Food Trust and is head of Icknield high school in Luton, where meals have been transformed over the past four years.

The school was formerly grant maintained and was not tied to any contractual obligations over its meals. He credits the vision of its previous head, who employed former Savoy chef David Lucas as the school's head chef.

Mr Dean believes that good food helps pupil behaviour, staff retention and results. Since 2001 its GCSE results have improved steadily from 51 per cent gaining five or more A*-C grades to 71 per cent last year.

"I'm convinced it has a major impact on students' behaviouras well as a big impact on the potential for results," he says.

He adds that one of the School Food Trust's briefs is to look not just at the food, but at the overall lunchtime experience.

"One of the biggest issues around in schools is physically trying to get through the number of kids in an hour," he says.

Certainly, the school has a tough job dealing with the sheer logistics of feeding 1,400 pupils in buildings designed for 900.

The school has opened an additional kitchen in a converted temporary building to create an open-air cafe. Any profit is ploughed back into improving lunchtime facilities.

One major challenge for the new School Food Trust is to help small schools without kitchens or dining halls. Chris Dean says those lacking facilities may have to join forces to provide meals.

"I believe it can be done, but it's not easy," he says.

"I think you have to be very creative. Heads sometimes say, 'I'm sorry, I just can't do that.' So we have to say, 'OK, but we can help you - provided there's the willingness for us to come alongside.' It's not a case of us dictating. It's a case of opening up possibilities."

Chef Robert Rees is another member of the School Food Trust. He has spent years working with schools in Gloucestershire to improve food and attitudes to healthy eating.

He believes the new body has its work cut out, with many headteachers focused on other priorities. He says one of the trust's first tasks will be to "sell" healthy eating to heads.

It will commission research to prove that a better diet and healthier lifestyle can have a positive impact on students' behaviour and results.

"There's nothing out there," he says. "We all know it's the right thing, but it's all anecdotal."

He says there is also little information on the infrastructure and capacity that schools already have to provide good food.

"It's idealistic to think that we can turn back the clock and have everyone cooking fresh food in every school across the land. But practically it just isn't possible," he says.

Mr Rees also believes there is a lack of guidance. There is no definitive guide to help schools negotiate the hurdles, such as how to opt out of a contract, how to restructure lunchtimes or how to provide healthy meals on a tight budget.

"It's hard - and nobody's going to say it isn't," he says.

"You have to bring everybody with you - and my only criticism of Jamie Oliver is that I don't think he did that. He went for the big-bang approach.

"But many people for many years have been working by bringing people together - parents, youngsters, teachers, schools - and it has been slow progress. But it's far better than it was five years ago."

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