Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Putting school dinner on the menu

Henry Dimbleby listening to school kitchen staff.
Back at the end of September, equipped with notebook and camera, I sat in on a forum hosted by public service union UNISON around the latest review of school dinners.

The new review is being headed up by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the co-founders of the Leon chain of quality fast food restaurants across London.

The forum gave the former the opportunity to meet staff who work on the frontline of school catering.

Unfortunately, given that the Department of Education was involved and had produced letters to authorise their attendance (and UNISON was covering wages for that day), few were able to take the time to attend.

Make of that what you will. But small though the gathering was, that probably produced a tighter and more focussed discussion.

And the question at the top of the menu was “what does ‘great’ look like?”.

Mr Dimbleby observed that there had been “a real improvement in schools in terms of, say, nutrition” since 2005 when the then Labour government took on the issue on the back of high-profile campaigning by Jamie Oliver and more grafting work by the likes of UNISON.

But he added that there were still schools that were not doing as well as they might.

It was reassuring to hear Mr Dimbleby say that he didn’t want the exercise to simply be one of writing a report and giving it to the secretary of state, only for it to disappear from view.

It would, he explained, be “action focused”, carried out in a spirit of complete openness and, if they found “quick wins – things that can be done quickly”, those would be started straight away.

So, “what does ‘great’ look like?” was the question he was eager to ask kitchen staff, as he aims to “create a vision” around school food.

The contributions revealed a varied picture – some of which might not have been expected.
As one member of a kitchen team put it dryly: “It’d be nice to see more contribution from the parents – kids knowing how to use cutlery, for instance.”

For instance, many schools – particularly very large ones – struggle to manage proper sittings for lunch, because they simply don’t have the space for so many children.

But there were plenty of more positive experiences and ideas to be shared, as those assembled there chatted.

Various schemes in individual schools are seeing all manner of initiatives, including using the school kitchen to give parents cooking lessons.

Other schemes include using vegetables grown in the school garden in the kitchen, and inviting pupils to help cook a meal with kitchen staff and then invite parents to taste it (an idea from Sweden).

Unfortunately, these last two fell foul of officials who said that they breached health and safety regulations. Ah yes: good old ’elf ‘n’ safety.

But Mr Dimbleby doesn’t fall for the tabloid hysteria, and argued that that was just an excuse used by people who didn’t like the schemes for whatever reason. And as a restauranteur himself, he speaks from a position of experience.

Staff talked of managing hours and budgets, and formulae based on the number of meals served per hour for the staffing levels they were expected to work on.

Most reported having to work longer than their contracted hours – in their own time – just to get the job done.

An exception was Fay Hart, a cook in East Lincolnshire, who will have been at her school for 28 years next year.

None of her team worked beyond their hours, she said. Surprised, Mr Dimbleby asked why.

“Because I’m the union rep too,” she responded, before adding that she had a contract for 35 hours a week, a rare thing in itself, with most other cooks in her position on 27 hours.

“When they replace me, they won’t advertise the job for 35 hours,” she said. “It’ll be 27.” There were plenty of nods around the room at that.

Inevitably, one of the biggest problems that emerges is that of resources – whether that’s a question of having to budget for a meal to cost between 67-75p per person or simply the time and the staffing levels needed to do the job.

It’s quite extraordinary listening to cooks explaining just what hoops they have to go through to get past managers – to get something like strawberries when in season, for instance.

It was interesting to hear that teams don’t actually want vast amounts more machinery. Dishwashing machines, for example, are less speedy than washing up by hand when you have to get the cutlery and plates back into circulation.

There was a consensus that serving children on ‘flight trays’ was awful – but thankfully, not all schools do it.

One member noted that her headmaster “insists on proper plates – even for children having packed lunches’. In a school with a large number of pupils from deprived backgrounds, the head felt that such relatively simple things were important.

There were interesting comments on the difference between rural and urban schools, with children in the former generally far more likely to prefer fresh food than their urban counterparts, who preferred fast food.

The general feeling was that after the service was moved from “a slow-cooking approach” to a fast-cooking one in the 1980s, it was now having to try the former on the resources for the latter.

Mr Dimbleby highlighted the importance of raising uptake in order to raise standards further: in the 1970s, uptake of school meals was in the 70% range. Now, it’s 40%.

He was clearly aware of the cost issue for parents on low incomes, and seemed to think that a universal free school meal service would be the idea, although as he said, getting such an idea taken up would be “difficult”.

It was a fascinating forum: some of what we heard could seriously depress you, but there was plenty of good practice being related too.

Hearing about schools that do more than simply feeding children – with cookery classes for parents and those school gardens, for instance – was enormously heartening: a much more holistic approach to the issue.

Personally, I was impressed with Mr Dimbleby's obvious enthusiasm and commitment, and with what he actually said and how he listened.

And I got the feeling that the members who had come to tell him about their experiences were positive – indeed, talking to one of the members later, I know that's the case. They found him charming and attentive and genuine. And these are feisty ladies!

One member who spoke to me simply said that they hope that this new review creates positive outcomes.

Okay, do we really need yet another review of something that should, in theory, be so blindingly obvious? Perhaps not, but on the basis of being present here, I have faith that the people given this task are good people for the job.

And whatever happens in the coming months, Mr Dimbleby was certainly given much food for thought, by people who are every bit as committed to doing the best for children as he can be.

• You can get involved with the school meal review here. Please do.

UNISON in education.

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