We can all be very proud of Martha Payne and her parents. But, oh the shame.
Scotland’s school dinners (or at least the offering from Argyll and Bute) are the talk of the steamie all around Europe. The story of Martha’s blog, Never Seconds, showing photos of her daily school dinner has been picked up by news outlets in Spain, Germany and Denmark. Folk have left comments! One Spanish child even shared a photo of one of her dinners for comparison.
All of which is great and demonstrates that the internet is a great way of linking communities of interest globally. Children talking to each other across the ether comparing notes about their school dinners is wonderful. But did the catalyst really have to be how awful ours are?
A Call Kaye phone-in on Radio Scotland on the subject had people piling in with their own, often polarised views of the quality and substance of school dinners in their own area.
Allow me to add my tuppence worth. The dinners the Big Chicklet got in Dumfries and Galloway many years ago were fantastic. Some of the best cooks in the region were in charge of producing these meals – many of them had their own businesses on the side catering for weddings and corporate events. They were fab and regularly won dinner lady of the year competitions.
When he moved to Edinburgh, he stopped. The portions were too small, the quality was poor. He went to a PFI secondary school. There was no proper dining room in this brand new school, the food always ran out, it was expensive, it was largely fast food, there were never enough seats, he and his pals used to go elsewhere.
Since the chicklet began school, there have clearly been attempts to improve things in Edinburgh but this week’s menu choices include a fried food option every single day (as well as fruit and salad bowls) and there’s not a lot of cooking from scratch going on. And this in a school with its own kitchen – a rarity these days.
It says something about a nation when the state of our school dinners has become a hot topic. The issue came up at a recent Nordic Horizons event which explored if there are lessons in Finnish education for Scotland. Pasi Sahlberg explained that the Finns invested time and effort on school dinners.
Children come together and eat meals, freshly cooked and prepared which are put down in front of them with minimal choices- part of the learning experience is new tastes and appreciating the food that has been cooked for them – and the concept of eating socially is an integral part of the day, valued and respected. It lasts an hour. Yes, they have their fast food moments but by and large, the attitude is that healthy eating is vital for healthy bairns’ bodies and minds and lunch is a key part of the school day.
In Scotland, we have devalued the currency of the dinner hour so that it is barely 30 – 40 minutes in some areas. It is time to be squeezed out to make way for the curriculum. In order to make sure our children have time to eat, toilet and play in their alloted free time, many schools operate rotas with older classes taking turns to be top of the queue.
Because the time is so constrained, every week I have to impress upon the wee chicklet that he really has to go to the toilet during lunchtime. All too often, boys in particular will cut out this vital step to make more time for play. And yes, I’m sure I’d still be having to do this, even if they had two hours to eat, pee and play, it says something about us that the timescales needed by little children in particular, to factor in managing all three are largely ignored.
Worse, in the chicklet’s school, children in primary four and above who take packed lunches have to eat them outside. In all weathers. Some schools don’t have a dining hall at all: in fact, in fit to bursting East Craigs primary school, the lack of a dining hall became something of a local campaign issue in the council elections.
It’s not just Edinburgh: plenty other local authorities treat food for children largely as a fuelling exercise. We are forgetting the important social aspects that eating together should be teaching our bairns.
We can measure the value we place on school dinners by also examining the cost. The last figures publicly available are for 2010-11. In that year, we in Scotland spent £213 per school pupil per year providing them each with a school meal (670,511 pupils in total). There are approximately 180 days in the school year, so I make that as a spend per child per school meal of £1.18.
The statisticians warn against comparing local authorities as they all include and exclude certain information from their calculations, so I won’t. But the average cost is divined from local authorities which spend much more, and those spending far less. And this is not just the spend on food – in most areas, staff costs will have been included. The amount actually spent on food is probably a fraction of this (not that school dinner people are paid anything like decent salaries).
Joining the dots – as Susan Deacon urged us to do with early years – is something we should be doing in other policy areas too. We have had to set ourselves targets to cut obesity rates among children; we are warned daily about the implications in the medium and long term from the forecast obesity epidemic; indeed, just yesterday I heard someone on the radio talk about how certain cancers – breast, prostrate and others – were linked to obesity.
And we are now spending a fortune on nurses and other public health professionals to try and fix the problem by working with children and adults to lose weight and change their habits after they become obese and offering expensive clinical and surgical treatments for weight-related illnesses and conditions in other areas of our health service.
Yet, we spend little on school meals, the commitment to healthy eating in schools is scarcely borne out by the food provided in many areas, we give children hardly any time in which to eat them, and we treat lunchtime as an inconvenient necessity in a busy school day.
It’s not hard to make the connection. Martha Payne can. We can. So how come local authorities can’t?