When the chips are down ..

4th June 2010 at 01:00

What is to be done with school dinners? Avoid them at all costs, it would seem, as the take-up rate by pupils falls at schools across Scotland.

I liked my school dinners; in fact, I liked them so much that, as a prefect, I managed to get an extra meal free in the second sitting by volunteering to do dinner duty.

That was back in the 1970s when meals at Porty High School (Edinburgh's Portobello, for the uninitiated) were still worthy of a visit from Egon Ronay. You could have beef olives, braised lamb, fried haddock and occasionally, as a treat, a hamburger - rarer still were French fries.

Some people went home if they lived close enough. For many, if not most, dinner at midday was the big meal of the day as we were Scottish, and in the evening we had tea - which was usually a lighter meal supplemented by having a few jam pieces before going out to walk the streets and kick a beer can (that we had not drunk).

I don't think people realise just how much eating habits have changed since then and how the evening meal has become more important. The midday dinner has become a grab-and-go lunch for so many, especially with more mothers out working when Darren and Daniele might have previously gone home.

Often in the high street, there is a deli or at least a Greggs, and the chippy, desperate for business, is now open serving a battered sausage, chips and Coke for only pound;1.50 or less.

As for the quality of the school meals, well let's just say it's erratic and now, with national nutritional guidelines, they are often less tasty, less enticing and hence less nutritious because they are not eaten.

Perversely, there are more burgers, chips and pizzas to be had in schools than before, but still the kids can't wait to get out the gates - even if it is just to have chips and grated cheese, a meal I can't begin to contemplate.

In my day, my housemaster Paddy Kilpatrick made staying in school top of our pops by working with the grain of what pupils wanted. He let us run a tuck shop and, yes, it sold Mars bars, Polo mints, crisps and cartons of juice - and the money went into buying snooker tables for the houseroom.

Immediately after school dinners, they were brought out and those not playing footie were queuing up (sorry!) to play billiards. We also could play our latest Jethro Tull albums at full blast, and the girls could listen to David Cassidy or similar easy listening.

As The TESS reported last week, a study in Glasgow came to pretty much the same conclusion - that a carrot is much better at keeping pupils in school eating their dinner than a stick preventing them from the alternatives outside. Paddy could have told them that for free.

Just as trying to impose national nutritional standards has resulted in some school pupils not being able to make and sell chocolate products as part of their enterprise studies or spread Marmite on their breakfast club toast, so too will any attempt to say what is best for every school lead to unintended consequences.

Some schools need to turn their car parks back into the playgrounds they once were, some need to invite the local deli or chip van into the school so the pupils have no reason to leave, while others need to provide events and attractions that make staying at school the obvious choice.

With every school being different, there should be no golden rule about what is best - leave it to the schools to choose and then we should see pupils knowing what a carrot looks like, never mind eating it.

Brian Monteith holds the record for eating 25 roast potatoes in one sitting and it never did him any harm.

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