School catering has long been a Cinderella service. But changes are afoot, reports Martin Whittaker
Jenny Greer was just 16 when she started work as a cook in a school kitchen. "For years I was stuck in a rut," she says. But her working life changed when her employer, Halton borough council, began to train its catering staff in a drive to improve school meals.
Mrs Greer, aged 53, was among seven staff who progressed to Higher National Certificates in hospitality management. This summer the team won an Adult Learners' Week award. And she now she is the authority's training co-ordinator for school meals.
She says the training programme has had a huge impact on school dinner ladies. "Our cooks are more knowledgeable. Instead of a kitchen assistant being told to cook the meal, they are actually being trained."
A recent report - School meals: Healthy eating and sustainable food chains by the Regeneration institute at Cardiff university - criticises school meals.
It says that local authority caterers still grapple with the disastrous legacy of compulsory competitive tendering. Further, a low-cost culture lingers on, with services spending an average of just 35p on each child.
Hence, the increase in the use of frozen, pre-prepared and processed foods and a cut in the numbers and skills of catering staff.
The report's findings are echoed in a recent issue of the sector's magazine Caterer and Hotelkeeper, which highlights a problem facing many state schools - namely, that kitchens have been de-skilled.
Vivianne Buller, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association, concurs. School catering is the Cinderella of the hospitality sector, she says. Most entrants aspire to work in hotels and restaurants rather than the much-maligned school canteen. "I would suggest more training: there's a skill shortage in the workplace."
Some authorities aim to reverse this trend. South Gloucestershire council, which presides over 114 schools, not only trains its school dinner ladies, but is also commited to using fresh, locally-produced food. "Our cooks are required to include fresh vegetables on menus every day," said Peter Cook, the council's catering, cleaning and contracts manager.
"Local farmers deliver to our supplier, who then takes that produce to schools. Of course, if you are talking about handling fresh raw meat and dirty raw vegetables, there's the need to raise awareness about food hygiene."
As well as offering food hygiene courses and training in customer care, the authority provides on-the-job training at NVQ levels 1 and 2 in partnership with local further education colleges. Because secondary schools are introducing computerised ordering systems in kitchens, it also trains staff in ICT.
"It's all about enabling staff to respond to changing customer needs," said Peter Cook. "Eating trends are changing all the time, hence our push on nutrition training.We are confident that all the menus compiled in our schools comply with the Government's national nutritional standards."
When Halton borough council, formerly part of Cheshire, became a unitary authority five years ago, it began training its 550 catering staff, most of whom were low-paid women working part-time in schools and other council sites.
The authority implemented a Beacon Award-winning workplace training programme in partnership with Halton college, qualifying kitchen staff up to NVQ level 2. Chris Patino, the borough council's catering manager, believes that morale and the quality of school meals have improved.
"A lot of the staff don't choose catering as their first-choice career.
They're usually mums who are taking youngsters to school and they get asked if they will come in to wash a few dishes. The next thing, they're baking biscuits and a year or two later they're the cook in charge. This training has raised staff self-esteem and self-worth. Now they're a well-motivated workforce."
Further, the money invested in food and training has paid dividends.
"Outside companies are there to make a profit, and profit clearly has a detrimental effect on the meal. By contrast, we just have to break even.
Any surplus we make, we plough back into the service, either to improve the quality of the meals or for training."