Schools meals are a ‘fundamental British value’

The Conservatives will do away with free school lunches for many primary school children in England (except for the poorest) and provide breakfasts instead, if (and when) they are re-elected.

I agree with Jamie Oliver about this –school lunches are often the main and sometimes the only nutritious and balanced meal of the day for some children. They also provide an opportunity for children to engage socially with their peers.

My issue about this is not a political one – it’s a professional one. In my view, teachers should be involved – they should sit and have lunch in the school dining room with the children and senior teachers should be involved in all aspects of how that service is delivered.

I know many teachers will say they haven’t got the time to do that (and they are right of course) or that they don’t want to eat school lunches (and why would they, when too many meals are so unappetizing and children can be noisy and sometimes ill-mannered).

But just let me tell you how it used to be…

First, when I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s (and don’t think that nothing worked in those days, school dinners certainly did) – I sat with five of my peers around a table – this is both at primary and secondary school) that had a space reserved for a teacher.

Every day we would beg teachers to come and sit on our table, we enjoyed their company so much. It wasn’t seen as anything other than a social pleasure.

Children laid the tables. They volunteered to do it, week by week, during playtimes. They were paid ‘pocket money’ by the kitchen staff. We all took turns and loved it, the pocket money was just a bonus.

In those days, it was always meat and two veg everyday (vegetarianism was still unknown, or at best slightly cranky) and plenty of pudding – everything made fresh on-site. There was never chips or pizza on the menu. I particularly remember the tender beef slices served up with huge roast potatoes, greens and lashings of rich, brown gravy. ‘Cheese pie” was another of my favourites – that came with fresh mashed potatoes and baked beans.

There was no choice of course – you got what you were given.

But not only were the tables laid by children, two children would go up to the serving hatches to bring trays of ceramic plates and bowls and steel knives, forks and spoons to the table – real dishes and cutlery, not plastic ones.

Then they’d go back for tureens of hot food and hot jugs of gravy or sauce. I remember the occasional dropped one – but I can’t remember any dramas – it was cleared up and replaced with no crisis about ‘health and safety’.

We passed the tureens of food from one to the other – learning not to take too much, learning not to eat too much, learning the manners of dining with others. We poured each other water into glass beakers. ‘Seconds’ were usually available to those who asked politely.

As we finished, those children who had brought the food to the table were relieved of their duties and two others took responsibility for tidying up the dishes and the table.

Of course, there are people reading this who remember school dinners as nothing but disgusting – offal, boiled spuds and lumpy custard. I can’t say that every school cook in the country was as good as the ones I had. But this was true in every primary and secondary school I went to.

But I realized when I became a teacher that this was not an issue of ‘council policy’ but about ‘school policy’ and a very much a professional one that teachers could do something about – if they wanted to.

When I first entered teaching in 1979, school meals services were still very much like I’d experienced in my school days. But by the late 1980s, things had begun to change.

The ‘free’ meal that teachers received for sitting with children during lunchtime had gone. Government cuts meant teachers now had to pay for the privilege. They usually chose not to.

Children were allowed to bring in packed lunches – which were of course ‘cold’ and usually not balanced or often even healthy – sandwiches, crisps, snack bars and sweet, fizzy drinks were the norm. Apart from the poor nutritional value, this fatally undermined the School Meals Service – fewer children buying school meals meant more cutbacks on staff and food quality.

‘Health and Safety’ meant all the things I’d described about sharing food that teach children fundamental social values had more or less gone. Food was served up on plastic trays with plastic knives and forks that looked like those you find in prisons.

I saw deteriorating behaviour and attitudes towards food generally and lunchtime in particular. I began to notice highly overweight and obese children for the first time in my life.

When I became a head teacher (twenty years ago), I did something to reverse the trend. I banned packed lunches. If you stayed in school for lunch, you ate a school dinner (now of course, with a range of vegetarian and multi-cultural choices). I banned fizzy drinks and re-introduced water at the tables and drinking fountains in the playground. The ‘dinner ladies’ wouldn’t let anyone out to play until they had eaten most of their meal. They certainly didn’t get seconds if they were discourteous, ill-mannered or wasted food. We were a faith school, so we said ‘Grace’ at every meal.

Just in that last paragraph alone, I’m describing the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education that every school and every teacher should be providing – not just as part of promoting so-called ‘British values’ – but in providing a proper education.

Good, nutritious, well-balanced schools meals eaten together – children and teachers together – is not an education or government policy issue, it’s not a political issue either (or shouldn’t be) – but it is a professional issue – and just as important as ‘what’ and ‘how’ we teach a ‘curriculum’ with ‘subjects’ in it.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.



2 thoughts on “Schools meals are a ‘fundamental British value’

  1. I laughed out loud when you wrote ‘Of course, there are people reading this who remember school dinners as nothing but disgusting – offal, boiled spuds and lumpy custard’. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Having emigrated to Australia, aged 8, I’d only experienced four years of school dinners. That was enough. Ours, in Sheffield, were vile. However, they would have been nutritious and I agree with what you’re saying.

    1. Ha ha! Yes, I can remember one or two that turned my stomach too – the hatred of cabbage has stayed with me for the rest of my life. But you’re right – cabbage is very nutritious..!

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