We are in an age where baking is blockbuster television, Jamie Oliver has become a one-man healthy eating watchdog and the press churns out a stream of food-related panics and miracle cures. Food has become a national obsession – and like any other obsession – it spawns untold myths and misconceptions.
So what better time for a food education scheme that does everything from pairing pupils with chefs to showcasing exciting careers and picking apart glossy supermarket advertising to show where the food on their plate really comes from?
But a new report shows that Scotland’s hugely ambitious Food Education Programme (FEP) has failed to make the same inroads into secondary schools that it has in the primary sector, despite signs that it is able to change deep-seated attitudes to nutrition and food-industry careers.
Secondaries remain less involved with the scheme because, teacher organisations say, they have been “buckling under the pressure” of new national qualifications.
‘Dire shortage’ of teachers
Analysis of the programme (bit.ly/FEPreport) shows that although it has grown rapidly – receiving nearly £6 million since 2010 – nearly half of Scotland’s schools have not taken part and a lack of resources and confidence has led to “resistance” from some teachers .
Special schools are far less involved than mainstream institutions, while schools in deprived and rural areas may also be missing out. But the disconnect with many secondary schools – particularly the frequent inability of food education to move beyond traditional domains such as home economics – is the main problem highlighted by the research. The report’s findings come as little surprise to Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association.
“There have been so many demands on teachers’ time over the last couple of years, it is hardly surprising that the capacity to develop interdisciplinary projects has been hard to find,” he said, adding that a “dire shortage” of home economics teachers was also hindering progress.
Mr Duncan said that, although healthy eating was a “strong feature” of PSHE, food-education projects often struggled to thrive elsewhere because secondary teachers were “buckling under the pressure to establish new courses and prepare for new exams”.
Improving public health
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary headteachers, saw “no antipathy” towards interdisciplinary food education but agreed that “the state of play in secondaries at the moment has made it difficult”.
Children in Scotland, a charity which represents hundreds of children’s organisations, believes that the FEP is vital. Chief executive Jackie Brock said: “It has a critical role to play in tackling increasingly concerning issues such as childhood obesity, as well as laying the foundations for a healthy and responsible relationship with food in adulthood.”
She added that support must be provided for secondary schools to overcome concerns about delivering food education and get teachers as engaged as in primaries.
The report finds that pupil feedback is “on the whole very positive” and there are signs of behaviour changing. However, it is too early to declare a long-term impact – such as pupils eating more local produce, trying new foods and becoming aware of a far broader range of careers in the food and drink industry.
Meanwhile, the number of schools involved with FEP has risen sharply each year and teachers who attend CPD are “very positive” about what they learn.
‘Overworked’ chefs: the impact of FEP projects
The recent report on Scotland’s Food Education Programme provided the following feedback on some of its nine projects:
The number of schools involved in Chefs@School – which allows pupils to work closely with professional chefs – has increased from 63 to 184 in one year. But some schools “overworked” the chefs, who became “overwhelmed”, and the relationships “suffered or broke down”.
Highland pupils learned about traditional small-scale food production through the Crofting Connections scheme, with one teacher reporting that they are now “far more appreciative of where their food comes from”. But progress in secondaries was hampered by new exams, as “some schools felt overwhelmed by the added pressures”, according to the report.
Pupils joined the dots between food on their plates and careers through Futures in Food. One teacher noted the impact on one girl, previously unaware she lived opposite a food factory, who recalled: “I screamed [in Tesco] when I saw the product and said, ‘That’s made in Coatbridge!’”
Children learned about agricultural life in From Farm to Plate. But some schools are reluctant to take part in farm visits unless full transport costs are covered, and this problem is “more acute in the more deprived areas”.