Cookery can be the right ingredient

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Janet Hafner offers some food for thought to the Government

* the moment you feel pleasure, whether in touch, smell or taste, you stop suffering," says Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water For Chocolate.

"In this moment you know perfectly your place in the world. Your existence is very clear and that consciousness of existence gives you peace. And so a minute dedicated to pleasure multiplies into hours of peace. Shared pleasure encourages peace."

Esquivel was talking, of course, about food. Could there be a more valuable skill with which to equip our children than the power to generate peace and pleasure?

Food is central to our lives. Indeed, its influence beyond the basic need for survival is confirmed in its role in every major religion, both ceremonial and as part of daily observance.

Food is power, control, celebration - and it can be denial or destruction.

From Bedouin hospitality to strangers, to the anorexic's rejection of the very stuff of life, the role of food in any society distinguishes humans from animals. And there's magic in food: it can change in front of our eyes.

Find out about the production and processing of food from plant and animal to factory and kitchen and you're studying biology, chemistry and physics.

Learning how ingredients work together frees a cook to experiment with their own combinations and encourages creativity as surely as any art or English lesson. Costs and budget, nutrition and health ... I could continue the comparisons. The skill to transform simple basics develops self-esteem and confidence, fostering further learning.

How is our education system using this powerful teaching tool? Generally, not very well. Cooking is part of design and technology, a well-structured means of encouraging creativity through handling a range of materials.

However, in practice, most children do little hands-on cooking - the most vital part.

Primary schools are limited, by a shortage of facilities and specialist staff, to mixing and baking a few cakes or biscuits, using a microwave or table-top oven. At key stage 3, children will typically spend less than one term a year working in the food area, on a roundabout system where design and technology time can be divided into four or five areas. After that, examination choices mean that many will never work with food at school again. And in our examination-driven system, the work of 12 to 14-year-olds is already focused on the syllabus for GCSE and A-level food technology, which emphasises large-scale manufacturing.

Children may learn all about packaging and marketing a factory-made lasagne but not much about making a balanced and economical meal from some mince.

As a teacher who has worked through the curriculum changes from the days of old-fashioned home economics, I fully support the design and technology syllabus. But I think we are missing a huge opportunity and my last half-term's work has confirmed my views.

Picture a group of boys tucking into a lunch of pasta and tomato sauce. "My sauce is lush Miss!" says 12-year-old James. "I'm going to make it for my mum's tea when she comes in from work." A couple of hours ago, he brought into school a carrot, an onion, a can of tomatoes and some dried pasta. Now he can make a real meal and help his busy mum. If education aims to develop self-esteem, then a practical cooking session does it in spades. These pupils are fortunate in attending a middle school and have been doing real cooking in a purpose- built room since the age of nine.

Given the opportunity, a nine- year-old can work safely and confidently with kitchen equipment and be ready to cook a quite sophisticated meal by the time they are 11 or 12. By then their practical experience will have taught them much about ingredients and their properties and they can tackle design and technology lesson tasks from a position of knowledge and skill.

The children in the Dorset school where I have been working do not know that they are among a fortunate minority. They love their food lessons, ask for the recipes to take home and can't wait to show off their skills to their family and friends.

If the Government wants to raise standards, then it's not just computers but cookers that every primary school needs.

Janet Hafner is a food technology teacher Another Voice, 22

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