Domestic drudgery or a basic skill?

12th December 1997 at 00:00
My diligent 17-year-old niece is already pretty foggy about what she learned about cooking up to GCSE. She vaguely remembers making quiche and bread and can recall with great clarity the special project where she had to design an airline meal from start to finish.

If this is typical - and by all accounts it is - warning bells should be sounding. The likelihood of her becoming an airline catering consultant is zero. But every day of her adult life she'll have to think about feeding herself. To date, she's learnt almost nothing at school that has equipped her to do that.

Ever since home economics was incorporated into design and technology in the national curriculum, cooking and nutrition education have been sidelined. Home economics, or the old domestic science, was always devalued as a non-academic subject, with a domestic drudge image. The newer emphasis on technological skills has further reinforced that.

There used to be the assumption that children picked up cooking skills by immersion at home. Nowadays, learning at mother's knee is a rarity, as subsequent generations ditch real cooking in favour of fast food.

The net result is food illiteracy. Teenagers are now emerging from secondaries without having mastered one of life's most basic skills . Back in 1993, MORI pollsters interviewed children up to age 15 in Britain. What they found was chilling - 93 per cent of kids knew how to play a computer game but only 38 per cent knew how to bake a potato.

You can argue that mastering a Game Boy is more a relevant life skill these days than boiling an egg, but it's not a convincing defence. The steady erosion of hands-on cooking and food education in schools is contributing to a looming national crisis. British children increasingly exist on a diet of junk food which is remorselessly hyped to them. Last year, Consumers International analysed TV food advertising directed at children. They found that in the UK, 95 per cent of food advertisements on children's TV were for highly-processed junk food: high in fat, sugar or salt.

The brainwashing has worked. All teachers witness the typical school-kid's diet of crisps, confectionery, fizzy drinks and chips. Not only does it contribute to short attention spans and poor results, it also defies the laws of nutrition, producing the sick adults of the future.

Professor Philip James, director of the Rowett Research Institute and strategist for the Government's new Food Standards Agency has just said that poor diet has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of ill-health in the UK. The diet of British schoolchildren is so divorced from anything wholesome, we're beginning to see the results. Significant numbers leave school either obese or anorexic. They face commercial pressure to eat processed junk food, which is not tempered with any alternative "real food" message. A major initiative to win them back to some healthy middle ground is terribly overdue.

That is why a reinstatement of home economics as a core subject in the curriculum - with a strong emphasis on fundamental cooking skills - is becoming vital.

My contact with beleaguered home economics teachers in Scotland where HE comes under the umbrella of environmental studies, is that they are badly under-resourced but raring to go. In the absence of any centrally-produced nutrition education materials one teacher spends the weekends drafting work sheets so the kids have some idea about the basics of good nutrition and can scan a label to assess its overall quality. Her classes emerge with experience of preparing sound, healthy raw materials from first principles.

With a bit of luck, their enthusiasm and tastebuds will be sparked to investigate real food possibilities which demand more effort than opening a box of mini chicken kievs and reheating them in the microwave. That's a life-enhancing and potentially life-saving skill. It's about time it was awarded that status in the curriculum.

Joanna Blythman is the author of the award-winning The Food We Eat (Michael Joseph Pounds 7.99) and a food correspondent for The Guardian.

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