An Inspector writes

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him at The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax 0171-782 3200. e mail:letters@tes1.demon.co.uk.

I am a former headteacher, still working in education, and a grandparent who attempts to support my grandchildren in their schooling. I would like to know how much account the Office for Standards in Education takes of the quality of lunchtime and playtime provision simply in terms of food and refreshment. Are factors such as inferior supervision, with children rushed through meals, restrictions on the refreshments that "packed lunch" children can bring, ignored as simply not important enough to be part of inspection? I don't think there is any reference to the matter in the new "improved" handbook.

There is, in fact, a passing reference to the "organisation of school meals" in the context of the promotion of the health, safety and well-being of the pupils. But the handbook leaves no doubt about the importance of children's welfare, their security, comfort and well-being.

School dinners, and their rituals, despite an occasional tendency to regard them with wry humour, play a vital part in children's welfare. For some, they may provide the only ample and nourishing food of the day. For many young children, experiencing their first prolonged separation from home these meal times may well be daunting occasions. For all children they should be, ideally, a source of anticipation and pleasure, civilised and attractive times that provide not only nourishment and refreshment but opportunity for the cultivation of relationships and mature behaviour.

In some cases school meal times are anything but this: boisterous and rushed, characterised by variable catering, a source of conflict between children; the recreational aspect limited. Schools will rightly claim of course that they are often limited in what they can do to improve some of these circumstances.

In what is often, admittedly, a rather cursory examination, inspectors should endeavour to make as informed judgments as possible about: * the nutritional value of meals * the hygiene, comfort and attractiveness of the environment in which the meals are prepared, served and eaten * the general pattern of menus * the extent to which supervision encourages children to eat as leisurely and adequately as possible and have sufficient drink available.

Considering the matter from the point of view of what schools might additionally do, reference to some of the suggestions you make may be helpful: * Create a tranquil and harmonious atmosphere where children do not feel harried to finish quickly.

* Make clear to supervisory staff the value of their work and their essential role in the school team - even if their wages do not always reflect this.

* Provide appropriate staff training that enables them to appreciate the importance of their relationships with the children and the ways in which these can be enhanced.

* Ensure that sufficient water is available and that children are not reduced to queueing up at a playground fountain or drinking from washroom taps.

* Give children who have packed lunches opportunity to bring carton drinks.

* Consider whether children can have water available to them in the classroom throughout the day. For some children their first chance for a drink may not occur until morning break. Consider the possibility of children having hot drinks in winter.

* lunchtimes can be an opportunity for developing children's concern and responsibility for each other.

* Give particular consideration to the recreational opportunities available to children when the meal is over.

* Provide, at least occasionally, a chance for parents and governors not only to sample the meals but to share the whole of the children's lunchtime.

It seems to me that this matter is every bit as serious as you claim. In most respects I believe schools are making significant improvements. School meals may be, in many cases, an exception to this with significant repercussions for children's wider education.

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