Fare's fair - cookery is not lesson fodder

8th February 2008 at 00:00

One of my earliest memories of my comprehensive school in the East End of London was a home economics lesson in which we made toad-in-the- hole. I was just off the boat from Ireland, aged 13, and this confirmed all my prejudices about the English - that they were very strange and had odd eating habits.

I have never cooked or eaten toad-in-the-hole since, but I did enjoy these classes and am sure they were of some value. Sadly, in those days, boys did not have the same experience because they had to do woodwork or metalwork instead. Nevertheless, my husband, who attended the same school, is probably the better cook (as well as being more handy with a saw).

The latest government proposal - that all secondary school children should do practical cookery lessons at key stage 3 - brought back these fond recollections, but also made me anxious. Don't get me wrong; I would be very happy for all my pupils to learn how to cook. But it's not that simple.

When I first arrived in my present school, we had a food technology department, which did some cooking but mostly "designed" meals. Even then, providing the ingredients was expensive and time-consuming. But the real difficulty was finding suitably qualified staff. We tried for two years, with a steady stream of disasters, and finally gave up. In despair, we turned our food technology room into a computer-aided design room (where pupils design kitchens, food packaging and other things).

My problem now is to plan and cost the latest requirements. My school is on the Building Schools for the Future programme and I don't know if all such rebuilds and refurbishments will have a cookery room, but I do know that it's not part of our planning process at present. Schools have been told they will have more flexibility with the KS3 curriculum, yet this sounds like a compulsory requirement.

The expense of installing a suitable kitchen, along with the cost of one or two trained and experienced cookery teachers and a technician, will be prohibitive enough. But the ongoing costs of providing ingredients - for 630 children in our case - at least once a week will be very expensive. The paltry sum designated for those who can't afford the ingredients - I think I heard pound;2 million mooted for the whole country - will not be sufficient. We have enough problems trying to get pupils to bring a pen in, never mind whole shopping lists of food. What do we do with those who can't participate, either because they can't afford it or they are too disorganised to bring in the necessary ingredients?

The fact is that schools can't deliver everything. Responsibility must be shared with other agencies - and with parents. The problem is that schools are trying to promote a set of values that are often very different from the ones held by our communities. Who is right? In our changing world, is it inconceivable that someone can be healthy when living on pre-packaged food? I don't know the answers, but I think this policy should be carefully considered before we alienate large sections of the population.

We already do a whole host of things to help pupils live healthy lives, yet the fact remains that a large majority of our young people have a very poor diet, not because nobody is making healthy home-cooked meals, but because nobody is cooking or buying anything at all (other than snacks) for the family to eat.

I believe anyone can cook if they can read a cookery book, so perhaps we'd be better off focusing on literacy and leaving the TV chefs to demonstrate the cookery.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher at George Green's Community School, Tower Hamlets.

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