Prue Leith
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Education and charity

  The Hoxton Apprentice
  The Hoxton Apprentice

I’ve always been obsessed with vocational education. Probably because I never achieved a degree or indeed much beyond the 25 yds swimming certificate. I know from our own kitchens that even if a lad with no qualifications and no achievements (with his teachers, parents and everyone else, including himself, thinking he will never amount to anything) is sent by an agency to wash pots in one of our kitchens and is lucky enough to land in a kitchen where he gets training as well as discipline; where the Head chef expects him to manage the task he is given but explains things clearly and is encouraging, then guess what? 5 years later he’s head of his own little unit, with half a dozen other young lads under him.  And in 10 years, with night school and qualifications, he’s a head chef.

The Food Bus  
The Food Bus  

Oops,forgive the lecture! Anyway, because of my interest in proper training and education and with the teaching of cooking, I got myself involved with endless charities to do with chef training, teaching children to cook in schools, training young people who had never got on in school, etc. The one am most proud of is probably  Focus on Food, which I initiated when I was Chair of the RSA, and which teaches children in school to cook, and also trains teachers to teach cooking. They have a fleet of huge pantechnicon buses which turn into fully equipped teaching classrooms.  Today Focus on Food also has a state of the art cookschoiol in Dean Clough, Halifax. It is brilliant.

 Another charity I put a lot of time and effort into was The Hoxton Apprentice, a restaurant in Hackney training and turning disadvantaged young people into great cooks and waiters, and bar staff able to make a mean margarita;  Sadly, like many a charity before it, it went bust in January  2013.  Still it did nine years of stirling work and many a restaurant professional owes his or her transition from homelessness and despair to a productive life to The Hoxton Apprentice.  



  King's College
  Kings College
And then there was 3E’s Enterprises, now part of a big architectural company, but which Valerie Bragg, a brilliant Head teacher started and still runs.  It turns round failing state schools and manages the building and setting up of new ones.  I chaired it for its first seven years. The first school we tackled was the failing Kings Manor in Guildford, now Kings College, which was a fair disaster. It’s now a really good school, with 85% of children getting above average results. 3 E’s is responsible for a clutch of schools, all doing hugely better than they were, and for several high achieving Academies

 

And finally, my unremitting obsession: getting children to eat healthy school dinners.  Until January 2010, I chaired the School Food Trust, a government Quango set up to help schools meet the new food standards that became law after Jamie set the cat among the pigeons over school food.

Prue and children, SFT  
Prue and children, SFT  

Thank God he did. Many people, for many years, had been warning of the dangers of poor school food, of schools dependent on the proceeds of selling junk from vending machines in order to buy books or run the mini-bus, of obesity and general ill health. But it wasn’t until Jamie’s School Dinners hit our screens that teachers, parents and governors, and indeed Government, realised just how bad things had got. 

So now the law requires only healthy food to be offered in schools. But supplying healthy food is not much good if the children don’t eat it. The School Food Trust (now the Childrens' Food Trust tries to:

  • persuade children to give school dinners a go;
  • encourage parents to feed them well at home and not to undermine the caterer’s efforts by sending them into school with pocketfuls of crisps and chocolate;
  • persuade teachers (and particularly heads) that it is important for the children’s health, concentration, motivation and achievement that they eat a healthy diet, and that they are more likely to do so if they are taught about food and how to cook at school;
  • persuade caterers to stick with it, because new foods are an acquired taste and children need to be persuaded to keep trying and; 
  •  persuade local authorities to provide the funding that will give the whole process time to work. After Jamie's revelations about turkey twizzlers and junk in schools, rather less children bought school dinners than before, hardly surprising since then you could get chips and chocolate every day, and now you'll see chips only rarely, and chocolate only as an ingredient in pudding, not as a snack.  But at least, after years of hard slog, the message is getting through, cooks are learning new and better dishes, schools are marketing their good dinner service with pride, teachers are encouraging children, and the wind has truly changed.  In both Primary and Secondary schools the numbers of children eating in the restaurants went up steadily.

The most difficult job for the future is to prevent successive governments from backsliding by relaxing the rules and withdrawing the pressure to improve. Manufacturers of unhealthy junk will always have more money and motive to corrupt childrens diets. .

  All dressed up at the palace for my O.B.E in 1989
  All dressed up at the palace for my O.B.E in 1989

The good news is that once a child learns to like something (and it may take several doses of broccoli or beans before they do!) they like it for life. And they’re not stupid. If they get to like a healthy diet, they’ll stick with it. No one wants to be spotty and fat.

There’s lots more if you are interested in school food. I resigned from the Chair when I turned 70, but my successor Rob Rees is brilliant. A campaigning chef if there ever was one, he works tirelessly in his home county of Gloucestershire teaching all and sundry to cook, and he puts real time and energy into the Trust, which despite rumours to the contrary, is alive and cooking. No longer a Government Quango, but a Charity and a company, it will, I predict, do even better in the future. Judy Hargadon, it’s Chief Executive until 2013 was the driving force behind it, and when she retired, she left an unstoppable  movement. The SFT has always done more than the Government required. One of its most exciting enterprises was nothing to do with Government. As a charity, we raised £20 million to set up 5000 Lets get Cooking after-school clubs in schools. And now more schools are raising their own money to start their own Lets Get Cooking club. The word has got out that the clubs are a great way to engage the parents in school activities, in cooking and getting families to eat more healthily.

www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk                                                                                         www.letsgetcooking.org.uk

 

 

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