Gerald Haigh smells something good at a school taking part in a project to raise culinary standards
Received wisdom, borne out by the observations of teachers, says that children now assume a meal to be merely beefburger and chips in front of the television.
Those who care about such things believe that this is a major cultural and social problem. It is an international one, too - education leaders in France, desperate at the thought of the disappearance of a national art, craft, skill and pleasure, are thinking of various ways to turn the tide.
Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, puts it well. "Enjoying food, sharing meal times, and preparing and serving food for others, can be one of the great pleasures of life."
Interestingly - and boldly in this health-policed age - Dr Tate gives this in his foreword to one of the supporting booklets, as the first purpose of the "Food in Schools" project announced over Christmas by the QCA. "The importance of nutrition and a healthy diet . . . " comes second. The third main purpose, as refreshing as the first one, is "to signal that school and learning can be fun." (Is this the first QCASCAA document to flag up "fun" as a curriculum aim? Surely there cannot have been many.) The project, inspired to some extent by similar ones in France, aims to encourage schools to make links with food professionals in hotels, restaurants and food manufacturers. Pupils will, it is hoped, be able to meet, and perhaps work alongside, adults for whom food is a serious and worthwhile business. A typical example of existing good practice cited by QCA is that at Lordswood Girls' School in Birmingham. This school, supported by the local Education Business Partnership, has forged a link with the Birmingham Swallow Hotel. Head of design technology Robina Hodson explains that "we were doing some work on lunch snacks, and thinking of new approaches - different wrappings, different fillings."
Responding to a call from the business partnership, Swallow's head chef, Jonathan Harrison descended on the school with his sous-chef and a range of ingredients and equipment and proceeded to work with the students on a range of different sauces for the enlivenment of their fillings. Since then, the link has worked in both directions and Lordswood students have visited the hotel and worked with Jonathan Harrison - and others, including the pastry chef - in the kitchens. "They could not have been more helpful," says Mrs Hodson.
For her, the value has been in having students see that all of the basic work she does - on preparation, on hygiene, on thinking through problems - are taken seriously by real chefs in the professional world. "It helped them to see that it's not just me in school going on about these things. He showed, for example, that if you are well prepared and organised, it's amazing what you can get done."
Jonathan Harrison very obviously enjoys the project and sees it as putting something back into a profession that has been good to him. "I love my work and the children can see that, and I think that's why they get so much out of it. Working with them is fabulous - their responses are so honest and refreshing. "
Mrs Hodson was pleased, too, to see the chef reinforcing the message that cooking involves making creative decisions based on knowledge of ingredients and processes. "You have to guide them away from the idea that if you are one ingredient missing, you can't do it."
This latter point is very much in line with QCA's thinking about this subject. Anne Waldon, the consultant who worked on "Food in Schools" for the authority explains: "It is very much about taking an intelligent approach to cooking - being able to do it in a knowledgeable way, as opposed to just following recipes."
Lordswood has, incidentally, seen an increase in the numbers of pupils opting for the food strand of the course at key stage 4. This, they assume, is a result of the link with the Swallow.
Of the two booklets from QCA supporting "Food in Schools", Planning the Project has practical advice on such things as finding experts and involving governors and parents. It also has background information on nutrition, safety and hygiene and on whole school policies in this area. It concludes with a list of relevant organisations and resources. Ideas contains 17 contrasting case studies drawn from all four key stages. These include, as well as the Lordswood link, a description of a six-course banquet prepared for guests at the Royal Show by key stage 4 pupils from Wolverhampton, a visit by key stage 2 and 3 children in Manchester to a Chinese restaurant kitchen to see, eat and make dim sum, and the compilation of a comprehensive cookery book compiled by sixth formers in Newcastle. The booklets have already been sent to schools. (Extra copies via the Orderline - 0181 867 3333)