Bolton school sets a place for quality food. Phil Revell reports
The table is set, the glasses polished and attendance is by invitation only. This is the Top Table, a regular Friday lunchtime ritual for Jack Hatch and his senior team at St Bede's Church of England primary, in Bolton. Guests include visiting luminaries, governors and half a dozen carefully selected and slightly overwhelmed children.
"It's a full three-course meal," says Mr Hatch. "Really it ought to be followed by a brandy and then a quiet snooze in the office. Chance would be a fine thing, but it's wonderful for the children."
The formal meal at St Bede's has a double purpose, as school catering manager Mary Parry explains: "It's a way to reward children's good behaviour, plus an opportunity to demonstrate to all the children the value we place on good food and good manners."
The Top Table meal is taken in the school dining hall, with the same menu.
"There's a choice of desserts," says Ms Parry. "We have proper crockery, flowers on the table, glasses for fruit juice."
One child from each class is chosen by the kitchen staff. Invitations go out early in the week, not necessarily to children who regularly stay for a school meal. There are few refusals. "It's seen as very special," says deputy head Sheila Bruton.
This isn't the only innovation in catering at St Bede's. Morning visitors to the kitchen are met with the delicious smell of freshly baked bread and the offer of a warm tea-cake.
Pupils begin arriving at 7.30am for the nursery and breakfast club. The kitchen meets all the food needs for the nursery. This can involve pureeing food for babies and preparing meat and two veg for the hundreds of pupils in the main school. Once lunch is over, the kitchen staff get ready for the afternoon session, which involves high tea for the children and staff at the after-school clubs.
St Bede's is an extended school, which means the kitchen runs throughout the year, catering for the nursery and out-of-school clubs even during the holidays. But the main job is still the school lunch, served in two sittings because so many children opt to stay there for a meal.
Mention of TV chef Jamie Oliver's crusade to improve school dinners merits a raised eyebrow in Ms Parry's office. There's a clear impression that she didn't need an upstart southerner to tell her how to cook and serve decent food.
"It's about fresh ingredients, properly prepared and served," she says.
Since her appointment as catering manager last year the school has moved away from pre-prepared meals. The morning routine now begins with the peeling of potatoes and carrots, and desserts and cakes are made on the premises.
Pupils are consulted about menus. One piece of feedback was acted on immediately: "portion control" has disappeared from the St Bede's. If children want an extra spoonful, they get one.
"We are also moving away from all-in-one trays and back to knives and forks, plates and bowls," says Ms Parry. "Who wants to eat a main course alongside the custard from the dessert?"
St Bede's serves Morris Green, an old-established district on the edge of Bolton. There are allotments near the school and St Bede's is on the waiting list. "We are about number 10, so we might wait for some years,"
says Ms Bruton. "We would love to include the children in the growing of the food they eat, but in the meantime we are talking to some of the allotment owners about using their vegetables in our kitchen."
Ms Parry's arrival at St Bede's is a neat example of serendipity. She has worked in catering for most of her life. "I was looking for a new direction and looked on the internet," she explains. "The job was there, and I realised that the school was just around the corner."
She is instigating a catering club for older children, where they will be involved in the food preparation for a meal the following day. The school has converted a room close to the kitchens for use as a meeting room. It has its own entrance, formal table, crockery and dining cutlery, and will be available for outside groups as well as school meetings.
"We are going to do dinner parties," she says. "It's nearly ready - we are taking our first bookings. We have the facility, we are here and we should be opening up to our community out of school as well."