History's recipe for better school meals

6th January 2006 at 00:00
The Liberal reformers of a century ago could teach ministers a lesson today, says Michael Russell

here is nothing that the media like more than an anniversary and, fortunately, no year is ever short of those. The year 2006 marks, for example, 300 years since the birth of Benjamin Franklin and 250 since the birth of Mozart. It is also the centenary of both the San Francisco earthquake and the creation of a universal franchise in Finland. It is a mere 50 years since the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. Expect to hear more about all of these during the coming 12 months - except perhaps the franchise in Finland.

Education in Scotland has a few things to remember this year, too. It is a hundred years since the building of Scotland Street School in Glasgow, which remains one of the finest Charles Rennie Mackintosh buildings as well as being a great resource for understanding what learning used to be like, thanks to the work of the Glasgow museums department. The Galashiels campus of Heriot-Watt University will also have something to celebrate for its predecessor, the old South of Scotland Central Technical College, was founded at the end of 1906.

But the most potent anniversary is that of the election of a reforming Liberal government in the early months of that year. While the difference in votes received by the outgoing Tories and the incoming Liberals was small (only 6 per cent of the total), it was one of the biggest landslides in UK electoral history. The Liberals gained 214 seats, and the Tories lost 246, including that of the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.

The new Prime Minister, the Glasgow-born Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, immediately set about introducing a programme of radical legislation and the first bill was on the subject of school meals in England and Wales. A parallel piece of Scottish legislation, the Education (Provision of Meals) Scotland Bill was introduced to the Commons by the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Sinclair, at the same time. Some state schools had been providing meals for the poorest children since the 1870s, but there were doubts about the legality of that expenditure. The new measure removed those difficulties, but it did not make provision compulsory. It allowed authorities to provide cheap meals and even free ones (though that was the exception), but it was left to councils to decide what was best in their area.

The Liberals also introduced medical inspections in schools and a raft of other public health measures, but the government's full-blown education bill ran foul of opposition in the House of Lords, which wanted to re-enforce Anglican education. The bill was eventually withdrawn in 1907 at the start of a long tussle which led to Lloyd George's accusation that the Upper House was only "Mr Balfour's poodle". Ultimately, the first Parliament Act was passed, limiting the power of the second chamber.

The 1906 select committee inquiry into the school meals legislation was revealing. It certainly found evidence of considerable poverty and what it called "inadequate feeding", though it was careful to note that this was "limited in extent and more or less spasmodic in occurrence". The committee made the obvious connection between such a situation and social conditions in which "many of the poorer people in large towns lack employment". But it also noted that other matters had an effect, including "intemperance, thriftlessness, and ignorance regarding the preparation of suitable food".

Next year will see yet another attempt by the Scottish Socialist Party to push a school meals bill through Holyrood. This will seek to emulate the 1944 legislation which made provision compulsory and was built on by the postwar Labour government. It regarded school meals as being a key component of its child health policies, the success of which was illustrated by a 1999 survey for the Medical Research Council showing that children's overall health in 1950 was better than in the late 1990s, with an excess of fats and sugars being largely to blame.

Things have, if anything, got worse since then, with Scotland now recording some of the highest child obesity rates in the world. Even if actual shortage is no longer a problem, diet certainly remains one. Poverty is, undoubtedly, still a factor given that cheap food is often the worst food.

But, just as the 1906 Commons committee found, other factors are important too including "ignorance regarding the preparation of suitable food".

Yet the very simplistic and beguiling solution of free meals for all is not likely to make much difference, since the evidence shows that such meals will have a patchy take-up, often be of the wrong nutritional value and will - in 2006 as in 1906 - run the risk of wasting public money by providing free food for those who could afford to purchase it. That would inevitably mean fewer resources for those genuinely in need, who should continue to have them provided discreetly and anonymously so that the question of public stigma does not arise.

The solution to the problem of nutritional standards and healthy eating really lies elsewhere - in the classroom rather than in the dining hall.

Adults need constant prompting to eat well, and a large-scale, continuing and clever public education campaign is required. In school, young people require to be reminded, guided and helped by a variety of methods including the removal from schools of fatty, sugary and unhealthy foods including soft drinks, reinforced by the reinstatement of basic cooking and nutritional skills as a compulsory part of all young people's education.

The Jamie Oliver phenomenon has come and will probably soon go. What is required is a longer-term commitment to getting it right - the type of intelligent, but not dogmatic, commitment shown by a new, motivated and reforming government in 1906. Perhaps another one of those will come along at some stage.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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