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Trying to account for pupils' tastes;School dinners

As the Audit Commission sharpens its focus on underperforming local authorities it finds many have a long way to go to tackle class sizes, nursery places, statements of special need - and even the dinners. Nicholas Pyke and Nicolas Barnard report

Even the apple turnover has been scrutinised by the Audit Commission's number crunchers. They are rather concerned that school dinners range from hugely disliked to a little bit popular.

Hackney, Doncaster and South Tyneside emerge as gourmet hot-spots, where a full two-thirds of the children line up for a meal in preference to sandwiches or the sweet shop. And that doesn't even include those eligible for free dinners. But Knowsley, Hillingdon and Coventry are culinary disaster zones: more than eight in 10 of their pupils find a far better use for their dinner money.

London emerges as the best region for school cooks - there 40 per cent of the pupils still cut the custard. But on average, school meal consumption has slumped to 35 per cent of students nationwide.

The commission insists its figures are "a fair representation of the quality and value for money" of school dinners.

"The percentage of pupils buying a meal varies significantly between different areas, from more than 60 per cent to as little as 11 per cent," it says.

The report urges low-performing councils to improve what they serve up - and to begin by asking pupils and parents what they think of their meals service.

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