Pupil take-up in food technology has doubled in one Leicester school. Mike Levy finds out what's cooking
Considered by some to be stodgy and unappetising, many teachers struggle to make food technology more easily digestible. But one school in Leicestershire thinks it has an answer and has increased its GCSE pass rate from 19 per cent to 81 per cent in just two years.
Motivation is the key, says Sarah Middleton, an NQT and sole teacher of food technology at the Robert Smyth School in Market Harborough. She has re-designed the way the subject is taught and made it much more popular with key stage 4 students, including many boys. The school, a 14-19 technology college with 1,200 students, sits in the pretty market town in rural Leicestershire, an area where food and food production is important (crisp manufacturer Golden Wonder is a major employer in the town).
The subject certainly divides the profession. One contributor to the TES online staffroom forum once said of the subject: "It is mind-numbingly dreary" and described much of it as "soulmurdering theory of mass production".
Sarah Middleton disagrees. "You can make this an exciting and engaging subject," she says. "I came to the school two years ago from a background in the hotel and hospitality industry. I could see the way the industry was going in terms of healthier foods, more exotic recipes and menus and wanted to bring some of that change into the classroom."
Certainly, there was no trace of staid dishes in her kitchen. Students were busy preparing creations such as Mexican bread pudding and sesame nougatine with peppered mangoes. They are full of enthusiasm for the subject.
One pupil comments: "It's really fun to prepare, plan and see it all come together so fast. All my family are really impressed with the meals I bring home."
Before taking her Design technology PGCE at Loughborough ("a brilliant course") Sarah managed a hotel in Suffolk. She also worked in the restaurant business. "My method is to replicate as much as possible the work of the professional chef," she says. "That means preparing a tasty, well-balanced and pleasingly presented main course in minutes."
Busy, purposeful and highly disciplined, the atmosphere of her newly refurbished kitchen classroom is certainly reminiscent of a Gordon Ramsey TV programme (though thankfully without the bad language). With not a second to lose, Year 10 students seemed to know exactly what they were doing as they came in for their practical exam.
Within seconds of their arrival in the kitchen, students were purposefully mixing ingredients, sifting flour, beating eggs and switching on ovens ready for their well-presented desserts. They are allowed to refer to recipe books (including Mexican and Japanese dishes) but they must show how they improved on these.
"One of my innovations is to focus on foods that are currently in vogue in both the restaurant and take-away foods industries," says Sarah. "We link the meals created to the latest trends in the retail and hospitality worlds. I keep a close watch on trends in, say, Marks and Spencer's ready meals. Currently it is 'fusion' dishes - combining recipes from different countries. There is also an emphasis on healthy eating, which is not just a restaurant trend but complies with the Government's agenda on healthier lifestyle."
Part of her approach is to focus on techniques of food preparation designed for manufacture. Students are expected to design a ready-prepared meal that can be produced in bulk. "The students acquire the basic skills needed for a job in catering rather than just preparing them for cooking at home - though that is important too," she says. At the moment only 10 per cent of students go into catering jobs but she expects the number to rise.
Rikesh-Jai Patel is one student aiming for a career as a chef. He got a three-week summer placement in a restaurant and plans to go to catering college. Back in class he was working on a range of Japanese-inspired dishes.
"I love creating and cooking sushi", he says. He has also developed a new Singapore noodles dish and a wondrous melange of banana fritter with caramelised sweet potato.
But food technology is not all about cooking. There is a considerable amount of written project work, an area that can be as interesting as a frozen fish finger.
Sarah set about reworking the design briefs to make them more interesting and more challenging. The goal might be to design a "meal kit" that can be ordered and delivered to your home as a new type of take-away meal (note that it must be new). Students must investigate quality control in manufacture, health and safety issues, packaging, marketing, storage and product lifespan - all for products that have never before been on offer.
The brief might also involve an interview with a local chef to get a "real world" view of the design, and the students are asked to vary ingredients and cooking methods to see what the outcomes might be.
Students follow the AQA food technology syllabus to the letter, but it is the additional practical sessions covering cookery, development and scientific experimentation that have enhanced their experience of the subject.
So, have Sarah's changes boosted the subject? The proof of the pudding is both in the eating and the take-up.
Robert Smyth School's headteacher Colin Dean says: "We have doubled the classes to four groups per year and the subject is currently over-subscribed. The subject has become so popular that we would like to continue it into the sixth form - perhaps a catering GNVQ."
He acknowledges that some of the enthusiasm for the subject is down to the influence of TV's Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, but says there is one reason above all others - "the teacher's love and enthusiasm for food, and her passion for sharing that with her students".
Perhaps the best way to a student's heart is through the stomach.