Last autumn, Radio 4 broadcast a programme on students' eating habits. It began by reminding us that when students go to university, the majority will be coping for the first time with cooking for themselves. Most will have studied food technology at school, it continued, but this teaches them to design pizza packaging rather than how to make the pizza. What followed was a plug for a new cookbook and a cooking lesson featuring grateful students.
It was that dismissal of food technology teaching that struck me - that's how it is and let's carry on with the programme. As a food-tech teacher, I argue that it is not quite how it is. We work hard to include as much cooking as possible, at key stage 3 and in GCSE teaching. We want our pupils to learn to cook and plan a healthy diet. However, there's a lot more that the national curriculum requires us to include, and we often have to use all our ingenuity to justify teaching basic food-handling skills. Learning to make spaghetti bolognese should not have to include two hours of design sheets, a production flowchart and the packaging for a "pasta product."
A shortage of qualified teachers is leading to the subject being taught in the earlier years by non-specialists. At one school, an entire term of lessons for Years 6 to 8 included no practical cooking at all, yet the design and technology teacher was convinced that his lessons still met all the required national curriculum criteria.
On its introduction, the delivery of food teaching through Damp;T offered a fresh approach to what had often been a worthy but dull subject. A change was due, and Damp;T remains a great way to help children develop self-confidence and tackle new subjects and skills in a logical way.
But the public perception is that food-tech lessons are not doing the job. For an explanation, we must look to the demands of GCSE food technology, where the focus is principally on large-scale manufacturing. Food teaching has always included some examination of ready-prepared products. But the marketing of mass-produced "convenience" foods seems to have successfully sidelined home-cooked meals.
When one student on Radio 4 claimed he could make spaghetti bolognese, it was only when pressed more closely that he mentioned the sauce was from a jar. If he had studied GCSE food technology, he would have known all about market research, industrial production systems, sales and marketing, and would have spent most of his examination year on a piece of coursework that replicated the commercial manufacture of a product as closely as possible. If he had chosen the option to "design and make a vegetarian main-course product", he would have learned a range of skills, but nothing about meat dishes. If his choice had been to "design and make a high-energy bar", his Year 11 practical sessions would have been spent making biscuits and tray-bakes.
Design and technology teaches an independent approach to problem-solving and develops organisational skills applicable to the management of any production system. It can be the first step towards a career in the food industry and stretches the most able pupils, whatever their aspirations. But it does not allow teachers to prepare pupils to plan, shop and cook for themselves, or to teach a full range of food preparation skills. Much of the content and coursework demands are beyond the abilities of those most likely to be thinking of a career involving "hands-on" food production, who are swiftly disillusioned by the subject and become demotivated into underachievement.
The good news is that learning opportunities post-14 are expanding. Greater choice will mean that pupils will not be obliged to follow a Damp;T course to GCSE. And they will be able to continue with Damp;T in another focus area and to learn about food through a different course. Forward-looking schools are preparing to offer alternative qualifications. GCSE catering, from the Welsh Joint Education Committee, is already running successfully. At Ferndown Upper School in Dorset, it will be offered to Year 12 from September this year, and there are plans to include it in Year 10 options next year.
Head of department Laura Cheney (pictured above left) says: "GCSE catering will give students real choice. It offers the opportunity to gain another GCSE, but it is focused on a popular vocational subject, providing motivation for pupils of all abilities."
The course specification requires pupils to "develop practical catering capabilities", which means teaching the whole range of food preparation skills. "Catering" places teaching and tasks in the context of the workplace, but it is not necessarily on the large scale.
Task suggestions all include a requirement to cook for others, but skills can just as easily be applied to cooking for friends or family. Examples include: lPrepare and serve two dishes to illustrate the different uses of pasta suitable for a "Bella Pasta" restaurant.
lPlan a selection of dishes that you could serve in a school salad bar.
lA hotel is holding an international week and you have been asked to prepare a selection of dishes from a country or countries of your choice.
Passmores Comprehensive School in Harlow, Essex, has introduced GCSE catering as an option alongside food technology. It has been popular with students, says head of food technology Liezel Hansson: "Our trial last year went brilliantly and the kids love it because it is so practical."
Like the teachers at Ferndown, she has found that GCSE catering keeps students motivated, even those who do not care for the project-based work of food technology. "The less academic kids tend to be the ones who are more hands-on and they prefer the work experience to doing the project work. The course gives them a real sense of pride in what they do," she says.
As Laura Cheney comments, the catering qualification provides "tasks that can be tackled by pupils of all abilities, that are creative and fun and teach real skills for life."
www.wjec.co.ukgcatering.html Jan Hafner is a Damp;T teacher at Ferndown Upper School, Dorset