Tes focus on… School dinners

11th January 2019 at 00:00
Timetable pressures have eaten into the traditional lunch hour in many schools, but the break should be preserved, argues academic Gurpinder Singh Lalli. He tells Zofia Niemtus that mealtimes provide an important opportunity to develop the social skills students will need to succeed in later life

What is the purpose of a school lunch break? Is it simply about getting enough calories into staff and students so that they can make it to the end of the day?

The way that school lunchtimes have evolved in many schools over recent decades certainly seems to suggest that lunch is all about “fuel”. The traditional lunch hour has been gradually eroded, usually on the grounds that a reduced break minimises behavioural issues. In 2007, a survey found that half of secondary schools did not offer students a full 60 minutes for lunch and 13 per cent gave only 30 minutes. In one school in the US, a class of five-year-olds had just 12 minutes to eat lunch.

Yet, there have been positive developments around food at school, too. A 2009 survey found that Jamie Oliver’s high-profile 2005 campaign for healthier school meals correlated with improved educational outcomes for children in schools where his advice was adopted (although Oliver has since admitted that the campaign didn’t succeed as widely as he hoped it would). And since September 2014, all key stage 1 pupils in England and Scotland have been entitled to a free hot lunch every day.

There is also an emerging trend of shared dining between students and staff – for example, in Reach Academy Feltham in London, where teachers sit with children and choose from the same selection of meals (Boris Johnson reportedly branded the dining hall’s offering “the best school dinner” he’d ever had). Likewise, the Michaela Community School, also in London, provides a “family lunch”, in which, according to its website, staff “play a special role in helping pupils develop the art of conversation at the dinner table”.

But how much difference can lunch make to a student’s overall school experience, and does it matter if that meal is provided by the school or brought in from home?

‘Bouncing off the walls’

That is what Gurpinder Singh Lalli, a lecturer in education, childhood and family studies at the University of Wolverhampton, set out to explore in his ethnographic study of the impact of food on social learning. He was inspired to investigate the topic after working as a teacher in further education colleges.

“Some students I used to work with were quite hard to reach,” he recalls. “After lunch, they’d be bouncing off the walls because they’d had only a snack and some energy drinks. They didn’t have enough time, essentially.”

Lalli decided to explore how the experience of school dining could affect the development of social skills. To do this, he immersed himself in interviews and field research conducted at a school in a deprived area of the Midlands that has a unique approach to lunch. One of the first things he learned was not to call the lunch hall a “canteen” ; the space was referred to by staff and students as “the restaurant”. This choice of wording was about more than semantics, he observed. The difference between a “canteen” and a “restaurant”, says Lalli, is the latter’s status as “a space for gathering and where social skills can be exercised, rather than just eating”.

At this school, the restaurant was used as a social space for teachers and students throughout the day while also providing lunch for almost 1,000 people using staggered timing and buffet serving. The large, naturally lit, open-plan space was a “focal point for the school” and had separate, round tables – as opposed to traditional seating in rows – each decorated with fresh flowers.

This is not a new idea, of course, and neither is it a revelation that such social cues lead to improved behaviour and community cohesion in a school. Lalli references a report from the National Archives, dated 1907, detailing a “feeding experiment” in a school, which states that: “There were tablecloths and flowers on the tables … from almost the first there was very little to complain of in the general behaviour of the children, for children soon respond to orderly and decent surroundings.”

Yet, not many people will recognise this “restaurant” experience in their own school. Instead, lunchtime is usually a logistical operation, with the objective of shifting pupils in to eat and then out again, rather than paying any attention to how this is done, nor to other objectives that might be met. So why is that?

One popular belief is that the current situation can be traced back to the 1970s, when packed lunches became popular. Previously, the take-up rate for school meals had been about 70 per cent, following the 1944 Education Act, which declared that local education authorities had to provide a free school meal for every child (until a 2.5p charge was introduced in 1949).

However, the numbers of children opting for school meals fell in the 1970s and continued to decline throughout the 1980s, which led to the removal of the requirement to provide lunch for every child, along with the abolishment of minimum nutritional standards in school food; by 1988, take-up had fallen to 43 per cent.

The subsequent two decades were marked by what the government’s school food plan – commissioned by the Department for Education and published in 2013 with the aim of getting as many pupils as possible to eat school meals – refers to as “a gradual build-up of public disquiet over declining standards”.

At the time of The School Food Plan report, only 43 per cent of students in England were opting for school dinners. While this represents progress from the record low of 37 per cent around the time of Oliver’s revelations about the unhealthy state of school meals, the report’s writers claim that the low take-up presented significant problems.

“Some [pupils] graze instead on snack foods served at mid-morning break (when the standard offerings in our experience are panini, pizza and cake),” the report states. “Others go off-site to buy their lunch – usually junk food – or bring in a packed lunch.”

According the report, there is a widespread mistaken belief that packed lunches are the healthiest option when, in fact, only about 1 per cent of them meet the nutritional standards that apply to school food.

While this may well be the case, packed lunches are not a factor in the decline of schools’ social objectives for the lunchbreak, argues Lalli. Social learning can be just as strong whether you are collecting a plate from a hatch or opening up your Batman lunchbox, he says.

A Danish study in 2012 found that school meals didn’t bring any “greater social impact and benefits” over packed lunches, as might have been expected, and that “the social entrepreneurship involved in sharing individual lunch packs might even outweigh some of the benefits of shared meals where everyone is served the same food”.

So although packed lunches may be less nutritious, they can still provide what Lalli says is one of the most important aspects of a lunch break: commensality – a shared experience of eating and togetherness.

“It’s about enjoyment of a meal,” he explains. “When eating is taking place, it’s an opportunity for pupils and staff to mingle. It’s a positive experience, in which teachers get to talk to pupils who may not open up in class. The practice of eating together acts as a stimulus for interacting together; it can break down barriers, which means that it’s more likely that learning is going to take place.”

Serving a purpose

So we need to dedicate more time to lunch breaks, as well as developing a greater understanding of their many benefits, says Lalli. He believes children need to be given the time to eat more slowly and encouraged to socialise over food. This experience would provide pupils with what he calls “culinary capital” : social skills that will be useful when they grow up and may have to “network over coffees and lunches”.

In the school studied, Lalli observed how students mixed with peers from different year groups and were able to talk in a relaxed way with staff, including the headteacher and leadership team. Some teachers at the school speculated that this opportunity was particularly beneficial for those children who would not have another shared meal that day.

So as well as more time for meals, and less focus on fuelling up, Lalli recommends taking steps to “send a better message to pupils” about the importance of their midday meals – through having hot plates, for instance, and removing the “prison-style” trays that are often used in school canteens. Careful timetabling is also crucial to ensure that the dining hall can accommodate all pupils. “It is clear that there are positive aspects in which the school dining space is helping to foster opportunities for social learning,” says Lalli. “But there is a pressure that is holding this social learning from taking place at times. There is evidence to suggest that learning opportunities are presented in school dining halls, but both pupils and staff report needing more space.”

Ideally, he continues, the dining space should become a central hub; a place where meetings can take place throughout the day, including with outside guests, and where staff and students tuck in together at lunchtime.

Ultimately, Lalli concludes, there needs to be far more discussion and research to maximise the potential benefits of these shared dining experiences because they stand to have a huge impact on “wellbeing, social learning and even mental health issues”.

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

Meet the academic

Gurpinder Singh Lalli first became interested in researching school lunches during his time as a teacher in further education colleges. It was there that he saw the issues that can arise from less than ideal lunchtimes – especially students opting for energy drinks rather than meals – and the knock-on effect on behaviour. He went on to research the topic for his PhD at the University of Leicester, conducting his ethnographic case study of the impact of school meals on social learning in an academy in the Midlands. He has since taken up a post as a lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton’s Institute of Education, where he teaches education, childhood and family studies.

Further reading

* Dimbleby, H and Vincent, J (2013), The School Food Plan (Department for Education), bit.ly/SchoolFoodPlan

* Earl, L (2018) Schools and Food Education in the 21st Century (Routledge)

* Pike, J and Leahy, D (2012) “School food and pedagogies of parenting”, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 52/3: 434-59

* Persson Osowski, C, Göranzon, H and Fjellström, C (2013) “Teachers’ interaction with children in the school meal situation: the example of pedagogic meals in Sweden”, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45/5: 420-27

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