Pukka tukka is a choice for parents

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Jamie Oliver has done more than expose Turkey Twizzlers. His crusade for better school dinners has also highlighted the tensions between what politicians promise and what they can actually deliver.

With just over a month until election day, that is a valuable lesson.

Politicians from both main parties need to decide if they really want decisions about how schools spend their money to be made in Whitehall or in schools.

This isn't just a problem for Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who has this week responded to pressure on school meals (page 3). It is as much a problem for the Conservatives, whose campaigns are at odds with their promises of autonomous "free schools".

While the Government can target schools to ensure they spend a minimum on each meal, it is really the responsibility of headteachers, governors and local education authorities to decide on ingredients and price. As school budgets have grown for seven years, they have had to balance priorities, and decide which caterers to employ.

Indeed, many school caterers spend more than the 37p that Greenwich allocates to its meals. Some schools work with the Soil Association to provide healthier, organic meals. Others buy from trustworthy local farmers.

These are local decisions. Which is why in its response to the Naked Chef, the Government initially focused on extra spending on school kitchens, new powers for the Office for Standards in Education and minimum nutritional standards.

Conservative policies are no less confusing. A few weeks ago, Michael Howard promised to slim the curriculum down to the basics, waxing lyrical about subjects "that are worth studying: maths, literature, foreign languages". In January, the shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, pledged compulsory history until the age of 16.

It is hard to see how time will be found to provide the rigorous vocational education the Tories also support from age 14. They can only achieve these goals by making the curriculum more prescriptive, not less.

The issue is not whether schools should spend more on healthier meals, or whether history and languages should be compulsory. It is who decides this should happen.

While schools have been given far greater powers over funding - and more flexibility over the curriculum - the public, politicians and the press don't yet expect them to take responsibility for how they use those powers.

Ofsted inspections will say little about how individual subjects are being taught. Governing bodies hold schools to account, but parents are rarely directly involved in key decisions.

But schools should do more to justify their decisions. When they produce their three-yearly budgets from next year they should consult parents, and explain their decisions on their websites. Now that ministers are promising schools extra money for school meals, reports could show whether spending on their ingredients is being increased.

Local and national government must explain spending to voters. Public companies must do the same for shareholders. So, schools should be much more open about spending decisions - and not just to governors.

The same should be true about the curriculum. Once the broad framework is set Mr Howard should not expect to draw up detailed traditionalist history lesson plans. Parents should be consulted by schools before crucial curriculum decisions are made.

With new technology, this should not mean lots of extra work. Such reports should already be written for governors and staff. Inspectors could recognise good practice. And local newspapers should be encouraged to take as much of an interest in these deliberations as they do in decisions made by local councils.

For schools to move from mucka tukka to pukka tukka in today's devolved education system will require more than government directives - or money.

It will need parents to be able to engage more with their local schools.

After all, that is where many decisions really lie today.

Conor Ryan is co-author of Excellence in Education: the Making of Great Schools (David Fulton Publishers, pound;25)

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