There's something nasty on my plate

10th June 2011 at 01:00

Early in headship, I learnt that governments and learning authorities can issue very odd directives to schools.

Recently, for example, I was asked what provision I was making in case the Elephant and Castle area of London near my school became flooded. Since it arrived after lunch on a Friday, I assumed the directive had been designed by a bored official who couldn't fill his afternoon. I responded in kind, saying my Year 6 children had been building an ark for some time and I was teaching the children how to semaphore distress signals.

But at least that directive cost nothing and did nobody any harm. Far more worrying is a new Government initiative whereby primary-aged children are provided with free healthy school lunches. Southwark, a deprived area, has a high child obesity rate, so it is one of the areas piloting the scheme. The rationale is simple. Children who currently receive free school meals won't feel "stigmatised". Child obesity figures will fall, because children will eat at least one healthy, well-cooked meal every day. Pupils will work much harder, with greater concentration. And it will put an end to children bringing unsuitable packed lunches to school.

None of these reasons holds much water, and it seems to me that we are moving towards a time when we say to prospective parents: "Look, you just have the babies and then your job is done - we'll do everything else." Quite a proportion of the children at my school are woken by elder siblings and taken to a breakfast club. A childminder drops them at school and they attend an after-school club until 6.30pm. The amount of time they spend with their parents (often one parent, because the other has left home) is minimal. The parents rarely spend any quality time with their offspring because they need to work to pay the bills and provide their child with the latest mobile phone or games console. Even at weekends, the child is often farmed out to somebody else. One of my parents has never taken her daughter out of the house, let alone to the park at the end of the road.

It isn't hard to give primary children a quality lunch. We have a first-rate meals contractor and the food is not only healthy, it is delicious. Even so, children still have to be encouraged to eat healthily and to put "a range of colours" on their plates. Parents are often lax about this, but teachers needn't be, although you would get into trouble trying to force food down a child's throat. The notion of healthy eating has to be carefully embedded in a school's ethos, just as keeping fit is.

And there's the rub in this instance. This year, our local authority has cut funding drastically, and one of the essential things we have lost are the fitness coaches - specialists who are excellent role models and visit regularly to teach our children games and gymnastics. Exercise, and plenty of it, is the quickest route to staying fit and, yes, teachers will still teach PE, but not as well as the specialists. Swimming? Yes, we would love the opportunity, but funding is disappearing for that, too.

This hare-brained scheme to give all pupils free meals won't work, and it won't cut obesity. Quality school meals needn't be expensive; parents should pay if they can afford it and those who can't are already subsidised.

Years ago, in my first years of headship, I was allowed to ban packed lunches and every child really did receive a first-class meal. You can't do that now, of course. People have the right to do what they like. And if somebody else is paying for it, so much the better.

Mike Kent's new book Tales from the Head's Room is published by Continuum, priced #163;14.99.

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