Education and Charity
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.
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 taught children in school to cook, and also trained teachers to teach cooking. They had a fleet of huge pantechnicon buses which turned into fully equipped teaching classrooms.
Sadly, Focus on Food has now closed, but happily that is mainly because with the battle finally won -- feel, partially won, -- so that schools do now teach cooking as part of the curriculum, there is less need for charities to do that work. .
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 good cooks and waiters, and teaching bar staff able to make a mean margarita; 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.
And then there was 3E’s Enterprises, now part of a big architectural company, but which Valerie Bragg, a brilliant Head teacher started as CEO, with me as the Chair. It turns round failing state schools and manages the building and setting up of new ones. The first school we tackled was the failing Kings Manor in Guildford which was a fair disaster. Now, as Kings College, it is a really good school, with 85% of children getting above average results. 3 E’s was 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.
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 state schools (with the exception of Academies, whose Head teachers can do what they like. The thinking is that Academy Heads can be trusted to do the right thing; they will know that healthy food is best, etc. -- I'm not sure I'm convinced.There are bound to me some who will not be able to resist the profits to be made from selling junk to children.)
Still, most schools must follow the rules (no fizzy pop, no sweets, no chocolate bars, chips only once a week etc). But supplying healthy food is not much good if the children don’t eat it. The School Food Trust (now the Children's 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 the public saw, for the first time, just what rubbish could be served in schools, and when children, faced for the first time with vegetables and healthy stuff they were not yet used to, voted with their feet. But then, as dining rooms improved, parents understood the benefit of a healthy diet and cooks were better trained, school dinner numbers began to increase, especially when more primary school children had a free lunch. 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 has gone 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.
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 was 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.