HEADTEACHERS AND their relationship with catering staff are central to the success of the new school food plan. But will it help increase 'stubbornly low' levels of take-up?
When Simon Barber took over Carshalton Boys Sports College 10 years ago, only 4% of children managed to meet the academic benchmark of five GCSEs at A* to C grades including English and maths. The atmosphere and the discipline at the school in Sutton were terrible, matched only – but significantly – by the school dinners. But Barber had a plan.
He brought the school canteen to the centre of school life. Teachers began sitting down for meals with students rather than locking the kids outside for an hour. Table manners replaced mayhem. And nutritious school dinners replaced packed lunches and fast food.
So how did Barber woo children and staff back to the dining hall? He did just what any good food business would do: he made the service and the food great.
Barber is now the poster boy of the government’s new “School Food Plan”. And the Department for Education wants more headteachers to do what Simon does. “A whole-school approach, led by the headteacher, is the only way to make children enthusiastic about eating well,” was one of the main conclusions of the plan, launched in July.
Written by the founders of Leon, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the 149-page plan includes a number of recommendations for the government, most of which have already been agreed (the extension of free school meals to primary schools is the notable exception). In principle, the plan has been welcomed, but some have questioned whether it will provide the stimulus to hit an ambitious take-up target or simply maintain the gradual improvements seen since Jamie Oliver picked up the gauntlet in the Turkey Twizzler days.
For the catering sector, the recognition that school catering has a poor image and that staff require a boost to morale is welcome. “School cooks are expected to do something complex: serve children healthy meals that taste great and can compete with the highly marketed food available on the high street. And they must do this on a tight budget in a short time each day,” the report acknowledges.
It is a tough assignment, requiring a workforce skilled in cooking, kitchen management, procurement and professional customer service, catering for diners ranging from tiny to teenager. And yet the school food workforce is often overlooked within schools, and is seen by many as the “poor relation” of the catering trade. Training in more than food safety and hygiene is recommended – only 19% of local authorities offered the level 2 Kitchen Skills Diploma, which actually teaches cooking, according to the School Food Trust in 2012.
Barber’s answer was to bring in an experienced restaurant chef, Dave Holdsworth, so the school could compete directly with the local fast-food outlets for the custom of older children, while introducing a stay-on-site policy for younger ones. From a low of 20%, take-up is now at 80%. This, of course, has economic benefits.
A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money. For the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get “above 50%” (the all- time low was 37% after the Jamie’s School Dinners exposé in 2005). Though improved in recent years, take-up currently stands at what the government sees as a “stubbornly low” 43%.
“Not enough children are eating well and not enough money is going into the school food system to ensure that it can provide great food and pay its way,” said Dimbleby. The system, he said, is currently bust, and has to be subsidised with money from school budgets and local councils to the tune of £140m a year.
Achieving 50% means an extra 3.8m meals being served every day, so the average school would need to serve 20% more meals than it does now. However, exceeding the break-even number would mean generating a surplus. “Things would get really exciting if take-up reached 60% or 70%,” the plan concludes. “At 70% take-up that could be more than £200m per year.”
Headteachers will need to drive this change, said Dimbleby and Vincent. “Increasing take- up is not something that can be done from the top-down,” Vincent explained. “It requires a cultural change within each school. We know from our experience that this change is led by headteachers and we hope they help to take this plan forward to make a real and lasting change.”
The idea of headteachers taking on the role of head chef is one of the most controversial – a case of “Please sir, can we have some more of your (already stretched) time and resources”, according to the likes of the National Association of Head Teachers. The trade union’s general secretary, Russell Hobby, is concerned by the ever- growing list of responsibilities and accountabilities for members. “It is hard to be headteacher, head coach, head of finance and head chef all at the same time and still do a good job on all of them,” he said.
“Not all schools have kitchens, staff will need the right training to ensure their skills and cooking facilities are up to date and safe, and many schools will need to consider how they can seat and feed a thousand or more students a day. Nonetheless, they are all keen to do as much as possible.”
The carrot is that good food often relates to good grades, but there will also be a stick, with Ofsted to consider culture and behaviour in dining halls as part of its assessments.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) welcomed the inclusive approach. “We particularly welcome the emphasis on increased uptake of school meals and the role everyone has to play in ensuring a holistic approach in providing good food,” said its national chair, Anne Bull, who was part of the expert panel that Vincent and Dimbleby consulted.
LACA has been working with People 1st and others to develop a qualification to meet the specific needs of school cooks. Although good progress has been made towards developing this practical qualification, it still requires formal accreditation from an examining body. LACA will therefore be working with the government on the strategy to improve the skills and morale of school caterers. However, the onus will remain on headteachers.
“While it is unquestionably the role of catering organisations to ensure that their staff are skilled and motivated, they have a much greater incentive to do so if they can see that the headteacher is serious about improving the food service,” the authors conclude.
There was also a nod to the role of the rest of the catering sector – from celebrity chefs to food importers – in embracing school catering as part of the sector. Oliver, for instance, has agreed to find opportunities to include school chefs in his media development, to feature them on his Food Tube channel and in his magazine, and to encourage others to include school cooks in various national food awards.
Oliver could be credited with starting the school food revolution in 2004/5. Things have improved since the “dark days of the Turkey Twizzler”, as Dimbleby put it. “The picture that has emerged is far more positive than we had expected,” he wrote in the plan’s foreword. “The food in most schools is miles better than it was eight years ago.”
- £2 - average cost of a school lunch, compared with 50p for a "pretty poor" packed lunch
- 60,000 - number of people working in school food
- £16.1m - extra money made violable to boost take-up of school lunches
- 20% - children who are obese by the time they leave primary school
Main findings - School Food Plan:
- Best schools do a brilliant job
- Some schools still serve food that is too "beige"
- Take up remains stubbornly low at 43%
- Off-site fast-food outlets remain a lure
- 1% of packed lunches meet school meal nutritional standards
- Eating school dinners is better for children
- School catering is seen as the poor relation of foodservice
Recommendations and actions:
- Cultural change is required with head teachers at the helm
- Food and nutrition to be included in head teacher training
- Ofsted to assess culture and behaviour in dining halls
- New set of simpler food standards to be introduced in 2014
- New funding to help 5,000 of worst-performing schools
- New strategy to improve skills and morale of school caterers
- Cooking lessons to be part of national curriculum (up to age of 14)