The co-founders of the LEON restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, published their report on school food yesterday. Thankfully, Michael Gove seems to be in agreement with their proposals, suggesting that the current Ministry for Education is not as snobbish about ‘soft subjects’ as the failed E-bac (English Baccalaureate) seemed to suggest.
I was always concerned that the e-bac was a symptom of the overwhelming majority of public-school educated MPs in government: was it just a reflection of their own experience of education, in which old-fashioned academic achievements were the only measure of a successful individual? In attempting to replicate the various incarnations of baccalaureate throughout Europe, was Michael Gove implying that the only way to achieve global recognition was to be an academic hothouse? Thankfully, his concordance with the recommendation made by the LEON co-founders that cooking lessons should be compulsory for 5-14 year olds has dampened my suspicions of a condescending Conservative attitude towards non-academic achievements.
Bluntly, we need food to live. Whilst we don’t need to cook all our food, we’ve progressed from our days of picking at carcasses to discover that actually we really do prefer a hot dinner. We are not innately equipped with the skills to cook. Clearly, there’s a bit of a disconnect here, between what we want and what we can have. Now, in the majority of cases people learn from their parents how to prepare food appropriately. But we cannot rely on parents to provide this education for their children. I firmly believe that it is irresponsible for schools to churn out children who can get 100% on University Challenge but have no life skills. How efficiently can you remember what you learned at school if you’ve been subsisting on a diet of Pepsi and Frosties since leaving home?
In order for this to work, teachers will need to feel confident in their cooking abilities. It simply is not fair to assume that cooking is a fundamental skill, so it must follow that it is easy to teach. All sorts of anxieties tied up with food could potentially put teachers off: the responsibility of teaching a class how to cook a chicken without giving 30-odd children salmonella is a daunting one.
Teacher-training courses must give greater air-time to teaching future teachers how to teach nutritious everyday meals, not just fairy cakes and biscuits. Otherwise, how can we expect children to choose healthy options after they leave home? If no-one has ever introduced you to easy, delicious home-made meals, how on earth can you be expected to believe them when they tell you home-made soup really is better than Heinz? Almost more important is that teachers do not present cooking as a soft alternative to maths or English classes: ultimately, being able to feed your children is more important than being able to read them a story book. If they’re malnourished, they’re hardly going to be able to concentrate at school, as the Victorian educational reformers knew fine well.