'Healthy' hypocrisy turns the stomach

24th March 2006 at 00:00
I like to think I am a tolerant and fair-minded man, always prepared to consider the other person's point of view and to give credit where it's due. When our experts tell us they have discovered that phonics help children learn to read, I refrain from uttering the words "granny", "suck"

and "eggs".

When the Education Minister says it's vital that headteachers spend more time in classrooms, I resist the urge to point out that his department's policies led to the reduction of headteachers' classroom appearances in the first place.

But there is only so much that anyone can take and my credibility is stretched beyond breaking point when I see schools arranging photo opportunities to boast about their health-promoting credentials. Where headteacher, tame pupils and sometimes a government minister welcome their new junk-free menus or outlaw their tuck shops and vending machines, I see the latest example of educational spin. "Look at us," the picture says.

"Aren't we up to date? Aren't we responsible?"

But don't be taken in. Ask who introduced the junk food in the first place.

Schools are not the perfect institutions they would like to present themselves as. Like politicians, many indulge in short-termism for quick gains or just fail to think things through. The result is embarrassment when their decisions later come home to roost. Take the current panic over children's diets and the link with obesity. Poor decisions by many schools have contributed to this problem, with those that are now making the biggest changes being the most culpable.

We have long known that sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks are bad for children, so schools, as institutions of enlightenment, should have nothing to do with them. Or so you would think. But a majority of Scottish schools, primary and secondary, provide tuck shops for the purpose of daily undermining children's health. Odd. The original school tuck shop was a gathering place for the young gentlemen of the English public school, as in Tom Brown's Schooldays or any Billy Bunter story. It was a place of recreation, friendship and gossip as well as of insults and threats. The common, everyday version in our schools has no pretensions other than to take cash from pupils.

Schools may suggest otherwise, with claims of pupil democracy in action or another form of work experience. But the tuck shop's real purpose is to make money. And schools deserve condemnation, also, for failing to create a decent name after all these years. Have you ever heard anyone, outside of a 1950s school story, use the word "tuck"?

As for vending machines, no one even attempts to wrap them in an educational cloak. The commercialism is blatant. Only secondary schools qualify with their economically viable numbers and now, with fortune turning against it, Coca-Cola is fighting to keep its machines in schools.

It claims that their removal would be to the detriment of "pupils'

hydration" and behaviour (yes, it really says that). Then it turns nasty, telling schools that if their machines only sell water and fruit juices, it would "be unable to deliver the significant revenue gain that many schools currently enjoy from vending".

Of course, some schools are so completely signed up to the junk food culture that they surpass their tuck shops and vending machines and use visits to fast food outlets to reward good pupil behaviour. Could any school do worse?

As always, the home is the major influence on children's eating but the formal lessons in school on healthy diet have little chance of success when they are contradicted by the junk food approval evident in so many schools.

So congratulations to each school that cleans up its act, especially if it lands a punch on the corporate nose of Coca-Cola at the same time. But please, no more "healthy" photo opportunities. People are not taken in and no school likes to be accused of hypocrisy.

Brian Toner was headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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