Wholesome lessons;Food for life

19th June 1998 at 01:00
With the pressure on schools to teach subjects such as English, mathematics and science, there is little time for food and cooking. That is the myth.

The idea that food teaching has been squeezed out of schools started with the national curriculum in the late Eighties, when several long-established subjects came under pressure. A series of public rows saw such subjects as the classics, economics and physical education fighting to retain their place in the curriculum. Home economics took a heavy blow.

But it was not as bad as it seemed, says Geoffrey Thompson, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers of Home Economics. And interest in teaching children about what they eat has grown so much in recent years that a high-level conference is being held in London early next month on how to recruit more food science teachers.

Faced by budget cuts and the need to conform to the rigours of the national curriculum, home economics teachers were in the front line, says Geoffrey Thompson, and probably about 1,000 out of about 6,000 left school, either through redundancy or voluntarily. "Home economics was not a statutory subject, so it was among the first to go."

It was a setback, but food is covered under the national curriculum, as part of design and technology. "Children are more likely to have some experience of learning about food in design and technology than when home economics was seen as a girl's subject," says Geoffrey Thompson. "Now it has more academic status and security in the curriculum. It's probably more prevalent in schools than home economics was. A lot of good work is going on."

Despite rising affluence and the availability of higher quality food, the need to teach children about healthy eating has, it seems, never been greater. Young people's diets, says the British Nutrition Foundation, are typically too high in fat and sugar and too low in fibre, iron and calcium. Obesity, tooth decay, cardiovascular problems and diabetes are among the possible consequences.

"The message about healthy eating is not getting through," says Winnie Chan, a food scientist at the foundation. "Children are not equipped with the knowledge to choose a balanced diet. It is vital that children understand the importance of a balanced diet so that they can meet their energy and nutritional needs."

The response from many schools is to develop ideas about food teaching to cover almost every area of the curriculum. Whole school food policies, says Anne Waldon of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, aim to give young people the information they need to make choices about what they eat.

"Being able to cook so that you can make choices about what to eat is a fundamental life skill," she says. "If you understand where the food you eat comes from and what has happened to it before it gets to your table, then you are in a position to make choices about what you buy.

"You can teach people about nutrition in a science lesson. But if you offer them food in the canteen that is not nutritionally balanced it can send out conflicting messages. The point about a whole school policy is to make what happens in lessons the same as what goes on in the canteen."

* The National Association of Teachers of Home Economics and the Technology Teacher Training Agency conference on teacher supply is on July 2. More information from NATHE, tel: 0171 387 1441.

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