Tears at festive dinner time

16th December 2005 at 00:00
It is the school Christmas dinner and the strangers appear for their annual visit to the dining hall. It is a tradition. They sit together, an elite at a tablecloth. The teachers have rolled up for their annual ritual. The children, meanwhile, sneak down to the chip shop.

Christmas dinner is not a popular option in my school. I spend my time wandering from table to table, urging the children to eat it. Sadly many of them are unable to recognise the veg. And meat that looks like meat and is not processed is a mystery to some.

The occasion can open a window on a world you would rather had remained closed. You glimpse parents who do not have the necessary skills or the money to cook properly and can only fry a burger. It is the grandparents who have the skills. And if they are not around it can be a Christmas dinner of pizza and chips.

The kitchen staff enjoy the occasion. They see it as an opportunity to show they can cook. But so much of it ends up in the bin. "I don't like dinners." The children sulk, pout and disappear.

It is an occasion that does not meet the requirements of our clients. But we persist with it because we believe it is important. It is a celebration by a community, a tradition. We abandon the usual choices and provide only one. And in so doing provide ourselves extra grief from the kids who will not eat it. I have had tears before now because there are no chips.

But we cannot thoughtlessly accept the limitations of a poor diet. We have to show that there is something else, that fast food is not always good food, that there is pleasure and companionship in eating together.

Schools have an obligation to educate in everything they do, not just in the classroom but in all aspects of school life. I do not want the kids to gawp at the teachers at their table with bewilderment. I want them to say that they want that too.

It might take a long time but we have to show that there is a different world - one that involves cutlery, for example. I am sure that normal lunchtime choices are a reflection of an uncertain command of a knife and fork. Pupils can avoid any difficulties by having sausage and chips. Finger food is so much simpler.

Of course this is a wild generalisation, but I can determine which part of our catchment area a child comes from by their reaction to the dinner. And I remember an occasion some years ago when a child asked me what "them orange things" were. "Carrots," I replied.

Ian Roe is a teacher in north Wales

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