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20th July 2012 at 01:00
Teaching cooking in schools has been in near-terminal decline, but a fresh campaign is demanding that the subject remain compulsory and be better served in future

On the walls of the cooking classroom at the Crypt School in Gloucester hang photographs of Heston Blumenthal, the Hairy Bikers and Marco Pierre White. "Food teachers owe a debt of gratitude to celebrity chefs for raising the profile of food and getting children interested in cooking," says Clare Chad-Daniels, head of food at the school.

She plays Hey Ya! by OutKast loudly as some energetic Year 7 boys run into the room eager, it would seem, to start cooking scones. Chad-Daniels begins by demonstrating the "rubbing in" method for making the mixture. "If I have got 245ml of milk but only need half, how much is that?" she asks the class as hands shoot up. The answer of "122.5ml, Miss" is quickly given. "And if I need to add half of that again?"


"Is this a maths lesson or a food lesson?" she asks.

"It's both, Miss."

This, Chad-Daniels argues after the lesson has finished, is a demonstration of how the supposedly non-academic subject of food technology can be used to aid academic learning. "There is nothing that food can't deliver," she says. "I have had biology classes in here making bread and learning about anaerobic respiration. In previous schools, maths teachers have used my food room to teach measurements, and I even had a teacher deliver a whole lesson in French about how to cook ratatouille."

So far, so good, but the importance of food education to children's well- being has long been overshadowed by the campaign for healthy school meals. Numbers taking the subject have fallen dramatically.

Last October, Jamie Oliver launched his Feed Me Even Better campaign. And in May, a letter was sent to David Cameron signed by Oliver, Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard and medical experts and academics. It called on the government to keep cooking and food education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 14.

In his manifesto, Oliver talks about young people he has worked with who have in-depth knowledge of drugs and alcohol but cannot recognise the most common vegetables, let alone understand how to cook them. "This is because they don't learn enough about food at school and consequently they don't know what it is, so it's really tough to get them to eat it," he says.

A fat problem

To help curb obesity rates in Britain, where one in four children is obese, Oliver called on the Department for Education to ensure that pupils at key stages 1 to 3 get a minimum of 24 hours of practical cooking lessons.

"Cooking is a life skill and children should leave school able to prepare a basic range of fresh, seasonal, nutritious meals," he says. "I strongly believe that teaching our kids these life skills gives them the best start in life, for their own health, the health of their kids and their kids' kids."

Oliver certainly has reason to be concerned about the state of food teaching in schools. In the past five years, the number of pupils taking GCSE food technology has almost halved, from 95,000 candidates in 2005 to 55,000 in 2011.

What was formerly known as home economics - a subject typically taken by less able pupils - became food technology in 1989 when it was incorporated into the design and technology (Damp;T) curriculum, in a bid to open it up to pupils across the academic spectrum. As recently as 2006, Damp;T was taught at 97 per cent of secondary schools. This too has dwindled over the past few years.

Louise Davies, deputy chief executive of the Design and Technology Association (Data), is concerned about the recent decline. "This government has made it clear it has no appreciation of practical subjects. Michael Gove would rather schoolchildren learned about history and Latin than how to cook but, as Jamie Oliver says, `You can't die from not learning about geography.'"

Data claims to have research showing that schools are cutting practical work in food lessons owing to a lack of funding for ingredients, a reduction in the numbers of food technology teaching staff, a lack of training and a shortage of food technicians. Davies puts this down to the DfE's failure to follow through on a Labour government promise to make cooking compulsory for key stage 3 in 2011. These plans were dropped when the coalition took power in 2010.

Former schools secretary Ed Balls also introduced a programme called Licence to Cook, where schools were encouraged to teach cooking lessons at key stage 3. Each school involved was given 300,000 to build new cooking facilities and train teachers. The initiative recommended that schools should integrate a minimum of 24 hours of cooking time into key stage 3. It has since become a victim of the government's austerity drive.

Deborah Stennett, head of food at the Appleton School in Essex, was one of 800 Licence to Cook practitioners in charge of disseminating information about the programme across her area. She describes the programme as "superb" and is disappointed that it has not been continued.

Indeed, the Appleton School has experienced a drop in the number of pupils taking GCSE food technology since the scheme was scrapped, which she puts down to the high cost of ingredients that pupils must fund themselves, together with the government's creation of the English Baccalaureate.

"More academic subjects are being pushed, which means there is a reduction in the number of subjects pupils can take," Stennett says.

This, she points out, is hugely important for the children who attend her school. She estimates that only a fifth of her pupils sit down to a home- cooked meal every night, which she says is due in part to the school's lower-middle-class catchment area.

"I am very concerned there are two generations of children who have not had that background in food and nutrition," she says. "There are some children here who think cooking something involves putting it in the microwave."

In the more affluent area of Buckinghamshire, Judith Collier, former head of food at the Beaconsfield School, was shocked by the number of pupils - she estimates one in four - who had takeaways or microwaveable meals for their dinner.

Like Stennett, she is concerned about the lack of emphasis placed on food and nutrition in the curriculum. Collier, who has taught food in its various guises for more than 30 years, says: "I look at people's trolleys in supermarkets, people filling themselves with a load of junk and additives and I look back to when I started teaching food (then domestic science) and how we taught it. Pupils could get a love for food and an understanding of it from a nutritional point of view."

Collier first taught food as domestic science and then home economics, but she is most critical of food technology. "Food technology is making food for the sake of food but with no understanding of what food does for you," she says. "There is nothing from the point of view of vitamins, minerals, keeping your body healthy, keeping yourself slim. It is just from the standpoint of designing food and concentrating on cakes and biscuits.'"

Chad-Daniels shares similar worries that food technology is too concerned with industrial methods. "This is the only room in the school where children can learn to cook and I don't want to waste any of these hours spent in a computer room designing packaging," she says.

"We have our eatwell plate (a poster on the wall of what constitutes a healthy diet divided up into different food types).

"The most academic boys can copy the plate in their books and recite the different food groups back to me, but then they will go into Pizza Hut and order a meat feast. It doesn't work if you teach food like any other subject, it has got to be taught practically."

Can cook, will cook

Back at the Crypt School, headteacher Jonathan Standen supports Chad- Daniels' practice-based teaching and is keen that his pupils learn to cook for themselves. Chad-Daniels was granted more timetabled hours at key stage 3 and is one of the minority of food teachers who has a technician to help her. Standen allocated hours from Damp;T, resistant materials and graphics for food technology, a subject new to the school since 2011.

But Chad-Daniels' position is not the picture across the country, "which is galling", says Stennett, "because in science there are technicians, and if you look in those schools that don't have food technicians, there will be a woodwork technician for the other technologies, such as resistant materials and graphics."

There are also fewer qualified teachers coming through to teach the subject as food technology teaching degrees no longer exist. The University of Sunderland was the last university to offer the subject as an undergraduate degree in education, and since then food technology has become a small part of much wider technology teaching degrees.

The Licence to Cook programme resulted in schools being set up with food rooms, but there is a lack of specially qualified teachers and, in some cases, teaching assistants are being used to teach food technology.

Stennett, who did her degree in home economics, says: "People tend to think because you can cook you can teach food technology, and you just can't. It's like saying because you can speak English you can teach English GCSE.

"This is the only room where the children can work with food and learn about ingredients on a practical level, about healthy eating and the application of knowledge," says Chad-Daniels as her Year 7 class rush to get their scones out of the oven in time.

The song Golden Brown by the Stranglers plays in the background, a gentle reminder of how their scones should look by now. The boys bring their baked goods to a table and gather round for evaluation time. One, Jamaal Farooq, tucks proudly into his cheese and chive creations. "Ahh, that's lush," he says.

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