Back to school

Cooking’s going compulsory, and what fine timing it is.

It’s always shocking when the Government does something you agree with, so those harbouring an inner pessimist stand by and brace themselves for the obligatory policy U-turn and the onset of media bemoaning.

But while the coalition is kicking up a backlash against the bedroom tax and the privatisation of the NHS, a long-awaited and pointedly sensible decision was announced in February that cookery would become compulsory in secondary schools from 2014. This is a somewhat huge breakthrough for the school dinner landscape, with final recognition for an argument that’s had its drum banged since Jamie Oliver’s Turkey Twizzler tirade in 2005.

But by Gove, the Government’s done it! Education minister Michael Gove has approved the recommendations made by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of Leon Restaurants, who were drafted in to put pen to paper in July 2012 and come up with a comprehensive strategy. This idea-rich yet complex school food plan luckily spells a season of change ahead.

The plan’s proposals will affect change in state and free schools in the UK from September 2014, so kids aged between 7 and 14 will say goodbye to the choosing food technology as an option and instead learn how to cook from scratch, leaving school equipped with the knowledge of how to prepare a number of savoury dishes.

The draft curriculum revisions will give pupils the opportunity “to learn about food and plan and prepare healthy, wholesome dishes, following straightforward recipes and using a range of common ingredients and techniques”. And under its Key Stage 3 recommendations: “Pupils should be taught about the importance of nutrition, a balanced diet, and about the characteristics of a broad range of ingredients in choosing and preparing food. They should be encouraged to develop a love of cooking. They should be taught to cook a repertoire of savoury meals and become confident in a range of cooking techniques.”

Perfect timing really, as we’re seeing more and more unnerving stats of late – British people have the least healthy diets and live shorter lives than the rest of Europe say the latest health stats. With any luck, a new curriculum that includes cookery will save the NHS billions in obesity-related illnesses – another statistic England can claim to possessing the highest rate in Europe.

But it’s clear that there may be some logistical difficulties for schools who do not have full functioning facilities to teach cookery, which could ultimately effect the way this important curriculum is delivered, as the draft says: “In meeting this requirement schools without access to a teaching kitchen, nearby kitchen or mobile kitchen may have to adapt the recipes and techniques they teach accordingly to the facilities available.” The plan is, however, looking to schools already actively and successfully engaging their pupils with food. And importantly, it suggests it can learn from the schools “with thriving food cultures [which] have found creative ways to making dining rooms attractive, minimise queuing times, enable children to sit with their friends and make sure that they have time to sit down for a hot meal without missing competing clubs or activities.” Food education, therefore, is as much as putting a pan on the heat as it is about encouraging a healthy relationship and appealing food for the pupil in the middle of their day.

To advance the plan into its delivery stage, Henry and John began the first of seven School Food events in February. Running until 25 March, the events look at scope beyond the curriculum aspect and to the current function of schools and the role of cooking, growing, eating and learning about good food has. Henry said: “Our priority is to hear from as many teachers, cooks, parents and pupils as we can, to produce an action plan which will nurture and accelerate the improvements already happening in schools.”

The positive overflows from this monumental decision are rife. Done right and appreciated in line with the pupils’ other subjects, the generations from 2014 will gain an understanding, appreciation and knowledge of food and cooking — the long-term effects of which will not be known for some time. But, being able to make your own food from scratch at a young age where the opportunity may not have otherwise presented itself is admirable. It’s a basic skill among the adolescent masses that has died in the decades since home economics was phased out under Thatcher and food technology — the theoretical design of food packaging — was brought in. If mathematics and languages are to be considered a vital life skill to prepare us for the future, then surely food — a certainty in everyone’s every day life — is the most vital one of all, and the raw knowledge of how to produce it should be instilled in us from as early an age as possible. The future school leavers will safely be able to jump out of the proverbial frying pan, not into the fire, but into a lifestyle of healthy, informed food choices.


Comments (2)

  • Sarah Bailey

    This is really good news, cooking from scratch is an essential lifeskill.
    Once upon a time a lot of young people learned to cook at home, and GIRLS ONLY learned to cook at school. Recent years have seen fewer opportunities to learn, and cookery going back onto the curriculum for everyone is a breakthrough.
    Thank you Henry and John.

  • Hi, was at the same Guardian masterclass! I have to tell you that this announcement by the government regarding food education is not all its cut out to be. I have worked in food education for 30 yrs and have finally walked away discouraged, disappointed and really very sad. The problem here is investment. If you get a really good food teacher and a supportive head who funds ingredients it can be a fabulous full on subject that fulfills all its objectives. Usually its not. It suffers as a subject from under funding, short stressful lessons (you cant make bread in 40 minutes) and often quite dismal food rooms. Children who don’t have ingredients often sit out the class. The gov says that food is compulsory at primary – most of those schools do not have the facilities and teaching expertise to deliver food in a meaningful way. Be happy to discuss further.

    There are some great food teachers around doing a great job but they and the schools who really support them are few and far between.



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