Trust the crust

7th November 2014 at 00:00

There's something special about the North East of England. We who live there have always maintained this, of course, but it was also clearly demonstrated at the Schools NorthEast annual summit held in Newcastle recently.

The region has many distinctive features, but one in particular struck me over lunch. We were, at first sight, enjoying the usual conference buffet, with delegates balancing as many spring rolls and sandwiches on their plates as they could. But then came the pies. And next, the chips.

It was a marvellously northern menu - although hardly the sort of thing you'd expect to see at an education conference given how concerned everyone is about obesity in the young.

I have a confession to make. At my resolutely northern school we offer quite a lot of pies at lunchtime. We still serve chips on some days. And jacket potatoes, rice and pasta are always among the choices.

Outrageous and unhealthy? In the context of our fairly middle-class setting, where very few of the children are overweight, I don't think so. Indeed, I've frequently heard teenagers saying that they "aren't allowed McDonald's" at home.

I'm not being smug. I'm not against healthy eating. Nor am I attempting some casuistic justification for my own passion for pie and chips. (Actually, this middle-aged man resolutely sticks to salads at lunchtime as I desperately try to battle the expanding waistline.)

The conversation about pies is a reminder of the danger of catch-all remedies. This country certainly has a problem with childhood obesity. But it is not going to be solved by imposing ruthless carb-free regimes regardless of catchment, setting or student age.

My pupils are ridiculously active. Many leave home very early in the mornings. They play sport and maybe do music and drama during our long lunch break. They need a slug of carbohydrate, that quick release of sugar, to get them through the afternoon.

It doesn't make them overweight, it keeps them working, concentrating and active. Our students don't suffer an attention dip or sleepy reluctance to work when classes resume at 2pm.

Horses for courses? My little food parable is really a metaphor for the way education is too often run. Ministers and policymakers are invariably unable to resist the temptation to issue blanket pronouncements. Moreover, if they don't actually pronounce on the detail, plenty of people will be ready to interpret their wishes for them, jumping on the bandwagon afforded by that particular initiative and employing the threat of inspection to enforce their particular prejudices: healthy food; synthetic phonics; times tables; British values - whatever is the educational flavour of the month.

The conclusion is this. Keep away, as much as you can, from the seat of power. Treat with scepticism all those government diktats and unresearched, arbitrarily imposed blanket "solutions" to ill-defined problems.

Oh, and while I'm about it, if you want a good pie, go North.

Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle

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