Although Wren's Nest Primary School has an idyllic-sounding name, it is situated in the heart of a deprived council estate in the centre of Dudley. With 63 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals - a traditional indicator of social deprivation - it has the second highest level of FSM take-up in the whole of the Black Country.
According to headteacher Ruth Wylie, the children come from homes where there is little room for a dining table. "Most of the children eat their breakfast and tea in the lounge," she says. "They have a very limited diet and often cite `chicken and chips from the chippy' as their favourite meal." For these reasons, school lunches are incredibly important for both the nutritional and educational opportunities they offer.
Back in 2003, lunchtimes were the most difficult and stressful time of the day for both children and staff. Food quality was poor and the dining room was a difficult area with irritable children in long queues - there were many complaints. "It felt like something of an ordeal to be got through rather than an enjoyable part of the day," says Mrs Wylie.
For this reason, the staff decided that significant changes had to be made. "We needed to ensure that our lunchtime was an enjoyable experience where the children could relax and eat good food in nice surroundings," says Mrs Wylie. "They needed to be given the opportunity to develop personal and social skills."
What they did
Over the past six years, Wren's Nest Primary School has systematically and progressively developed school lunchtimes. Since 2003, the school has undertaken a range of activities to improve children's lunchtime experience, including appointing a new chef, Paul Tonks, and offering new types of food.
The new chef was determined to ensure Wren's Nest children received the most nutritious food possible. The school began to follow Dudley Planned Menus, a local authority initiative, which ensured that each meal was nutritionally balanced and met the national standards. Mr Tonks also tried to ensure that as much of the food as possible was cooked from scratch and not processed.
According to the headmistress, this led to changes in the children's tastes. "Several years ago, the children would only eat breadcrumbed shapes and choose this option without knowing what was inside," she remembers. "We stopped serving this type of food four years ago amid complaints from the children. However, we persevered - now children love pasta bake, roast dinners, shepherds pie, cheesy potato and especially Paul's curry."
Wren's Nest now offers two hot choices for the main course and staff encourage children to eat at least one of the vegetables on offer. In response to feedback from the older children, the school has acquired a salad bar as well as a jacket potato machine. There is always a range of fillings to accompany the potatoes - cheese, beans and tuna being the popular choices.
"The salad bar enables all children to help themselves and choose the salad items they particularly like," says Mrs Wylie. "This way we reduce waste and all children eat vegetables or salad items every day."
Taking on board feedback from the children, the school has refrained from purchasing ready-made pizzas as they were hard to cut. As an alternative, the school cook started making his own pizza with a softer base, which is described by pupils as "the best in Dudley".
The school also offers a fresh fruit platter every lunchtime, which consists of a mixture of melon, pineapple, grapes and orange. There is a choice of yoghurt or cheese and biscuits as well as a hot pudding and custard.
As well as aspiring to higher nutritional standards, Mrs Wylie has reorganised lunchtime supervision. "The deputy headteacher, Kay Mason, was responsible for ensuring that staff at lunchtime - class mentors and learning mentors - supported the children and promoted good behaviour as well as fun and games for all," she explains. "Many staff members supported the work by choosing to eat one of their lunches each week in the dining hall, where they talked with the children and provided role models for them."
Although teachers were pleased with the outcome, the improvements involved a lot of hard work on the part of the staff, says Mrs Wylie.
"One of the greatest challenges was the decision to move from a setup in which we had a team of lunchtime supervisors working only during lunchtime to forming a team of class mentors who work both at lunchtime and for part of the afternoon," she remembers.
Helping the children to develop personal and social skills also required hard work. "This was a hard decision for a close-knit school and required sensitivity and commitment from the governors," she says.
Lunchtime at Wren's Nest is now an enjoyable and relaxing time for both children and staff. "The dining hall has become a place where children enjoy chatting and eating in a social atmosphere," she says. "Children are encouraged to develop their social and personal skills, and the impact of this is now visible."
As a result of the ongoing initiative, the uptake of school dinners by pupils at Wren's Nest Primary School is now higher than that of any other school in Dudley. Staff members have started monitoring the take-up on a weekly basis since the beginning of September, and are hoping to make further improvements. The school has also ensured it involved governors when it reviewed and improved its food policy.
Last year, the school received the Dudley Platinum Food for Health award. "To achieve this award we needed to offer to get cooking training to our parents - which has been extremely well received, and we now have a waiting list for the next course," says Mrs Wylie. Wren's Nest also won pound;5,000 in the School Food Trust's School of the Month competition earlier this year.
Wren's Nest now actively invites people to come and experience school lunchtimes by joining the children in the dining hall. "We are delighted with the improvements we have made and are eager to show people what we have achieved," she says. "However, we are still on the look out for further developments. The school council has been talking to our chef about their favourite choices and how the menu should develop."
After recently moving to a new school building, Mrs Wylie wants to ensure that the school builds on the success of the old systems. "My plans for the future are to ensure the children have an even better deal at lunchtime," she says.
What you can do
- Ensure your school meets the nutritional standards for lunch and non- lunch food. See www.dcsf.gov.ukschoollunchesdefault.shtml for more details
- Try to increase the take-up of school meals by improving the atmosphere in the school dining room - this can be achieved by improving the decor
- Encourage staff to eat one of their lunches each week in the dining hall, taking time to engage with the children
- Add vegetables to popular dishes in combination with old favourites to show pupils a variety of textures and colours
- Meal deals could include half a portion of cake or biscuit and a portion of fruit for dessert to encourage pupils to choose the combination.