COOKING AT SCHOOL IS BACK!
I see that the Government has been tampering with the National Curriculum again, but this time it seems like a change for the good - cookery returns to the school curriculum as a compulsory subject this academic year. Whether it is the influence of TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry, who have both been commenting on the nation's lack of cooking skills, or the fact that 20% of children leaving primary school are clinically obese. Who knows, but I for one are glad that a new school term brings a revival of 'real' Home Economics or should I say Domestic Science. I say 'real' not because it's part of my name, but because home economics in the last twenty years has meant the study of food labels, designing table napkins and making posters on food nutrition. Now lessons will be about MAKING 'real' food, even if the Government has seen fit to give the subject a new title of 'Cooking and Nutrition' - the key word is 'Cooking'. It's about real food and useful skills for life.
Henry Dimbleby, of the Leon Restaurant Group, has been one of a panel of food experts advising the Government and he says, ''Our vision is that every 16-year old should be able to feed themselves and their family''. That's quite a vision for schools to deliver by the end of Key stage 3 (age 14). However, this 'new' curriculum subject will encourage kids to learn how to cook and as such the Government hopes that every pupil will have a repertoire of 20 savoury recipes by the time they reach their GCSEs. The aim is to make children and ultimately adults, independent in the kitchen, according to Louise Davies, an Adviser to the Department of Education. She sets the expectation of kids being able to look at a recipe and be able to adapt it - possibly by reducing the fat or salt content or adding extra vegetables or making it work within a set budget.
This is all laudable and I applaud the vision, but having been a teacher and married to a chef- teacher, I can't see this as plain sailing for schools. About 160 secondary schools don't have cookery facilities - they stripped out the old Domestic Science labs years ago and installed band saws and plastic laminators to create Design and Technology workshops. I understand that it costs £40,000 to refit a kitchen, but for many schools it may mean creating one from scratch. And one won't be enough for all the Key Stage 3 kids in a school! And then there is the need for extraction systems and safety equipment to meet legal guidelines. What about facilities for disabled students such as height adjustable cookers and worktops? Cookery in schools is a great idea but where is the money coming from at this time of cut-backs? Then there are Primary Schools, where facilities are very limited.
But it is not just about facilities for cooking in schools - there is the school infrastructure. Classes are large, in some primary schools as high as 40 and often lessons are too short to even bake a cake. So head teachers may need to be flexible in their timetabling of cookery classes if this subject is to be done well, and do they have the qualified cookery teachers for that matter? It is not a enough to say any teacher can teach cookery. The lack of cooking skills among the adult population applies equally to teachers as it does to anyone else and equally if you are a chef or a good cook, it does not follow that you can teach the subject. It is the same as saying you can teach English because you speak the language!
The challenge for schools and teachers to deliver cooking to their students cannot be underestimated. Those that succeed will be meeting their pupils' culinary needs well into adulthood - so make room in the school bag, kids, for pots and pans alongside those pens and pencils!