Academies on a (sausage) roll

It’s strange to think that only a few years ago most school meals were pitifully unbalanced, unhealthy and unappetising. As a new local authority Healthy Schools adviser I did my best to persuade the contract managers and the providers to up their game but to no avail. I was told constantly that schools were happy with meals. They weren’t.  They were very unhappy with meals but because there was no comprehensive complaint system their complaints went unaddressed and the meals remained poor. Parents and children voted with their taste buds and chose packed lunches. Children on free school meals weren’t so lucky. 

Then Jamie Oliver came along and added his voice to the debate. Because it was Jamie, people started listening and agreeing that the food in our schools was not good enough. In the borough where I worked this call was taken up by parents who demanded that the local authority ensure their children had better food. To cut a long story short, a huge battle ensued with demonstrations, confrontations and demands but the parents were right. Their children should have nutritional, tasty food in school that sets them up for learning. Standards in school food should apply for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Coupled with the then government’s commitment to extended services, children in wraparound care would be fed well and healthily. Because of parent power, we were one of the initial authorities to improve the menus and reinstate well-equipped school kitchens at huge cost. Unfortunately many schools don’t have adequate cooking kitchens because following the privatisation of school meals contracts in the 1980s they only needed warming cupboards or serving hatches.

The government eventually listened to Jamie and the parents. They set up the School Food Trust to regulate food and offer support and training to staff. I remember going to one of the huge dinner lady training sessions at Lord’s cricket ground. It was amazing seeing all those women committed to cooking better food all in one huge session watching celebrity chefs demonstrate cooking techniques and chattering excitedly about recipes on the tube home. These are the ladies that went from opening a pack of frozen fishy feet (yup, really) and bunging them in the oven to preparing freshly cooked meals brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables.

When the School Food Trust brought in nutrient standards, every recipe had to be nutritionally analysed to ensure the correct number of vitamins and mineral went into every balanced meal.

It’s not been an easy path to healthy eating in schools. Schools meal take up went down initially and schools have had to work really hard to persuade students to give the food a go. Schools put on taster sessions, healthy eating, workshops, award prizes and hold theme days. Unfortunately newspapers pounce gleefully onto the school meals aren’t working bandwagon and regular bring up the story of the Rotherham mums pushing burgers through the school fence. Shame they don’t ever mention the hundreds of parents who happily pay for good school meals that their children enjoy.

As part of my job I used to visit schools to see how well they were doing in terms of health and wellbeing. On these visits I observed mealtimes and checked menus. Luckily I had a nutritionist colleague who checked menus for compliance and supported school meal staff with their promotion of healthy food and understanding of cooking.  He was made redundant earlier this year at the same time as me.

I’m really disappointed to hear today that some academies are asking the government if they can reintroduce junk food items.  The government are keen for many more schools to become academies and it would be a massive step backwards to admit that healthy food isn’t really necessary for students at these academies.

The School Food Trust has released a statement urging anyone to tell them if they know of any academies returning to crisps and fizzy drinks.

You may think that we tree-hugging do-gooders need to step back and let the academies get on with it. After all, a can of Red Bull and a bag of Monster Munch are hardly going to harm a kid’s education are they? It’s a discussion I’ve had with countless teachers, head teachers and other professionals. We don’t know what the kids are eating- or not eating- at home. When a child is in school we are in loco parentis and it’s is our duty to ensure that they are safe, protected and supported in their learning. If we allow them to be stuffed full of e numbers, sugar and salt then we are failing in that duty, just as much as if we allow poor teaching to go on in schools.

It’s been a long hard slog to get to where we are in term soft school health. The government have withdrawn funding for Healthy Schools, school sports and extended services. I’m not prepared to let Gove, Cameron et al erode children’s health even further.

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for further reading about the road to better school food, have a look at the Merton Parents for better Food in Schools website.  

Classroom Secrets: it’s all work, work, work

BBC1 programme Classroom Secrets is a clever idea: stick some cameras in a Year Four (eight and nine year olds) classroom and invite the parents to watch the results. Maybe we should do this for every child. It was interesting how one set of parents thought their moppet would be quiet and diligent in class. He wasn’t. And how another believed their daughter was probably being led astray by other children. She wasn’t.

I can’t count the number of times in the past when I’ve said I was deputy head of a primary school and had the response, ‘Oh how sweet! That must be fun. Not like working with teenagers.’

No, not like teaching teenagers (I’ve done both) but different. In the past, along with other colleagues, I’ve taught small children who have bitten, screamed, sulked, ran off, hidden and kicked and it’s not always easy to get the parents to support their children.

One aspect of behaviour that emerged in the programme was that fact that children came into school tired on a Monday morning and not able to concentrate. We’re then shown a child eating a croissant slathered in Nutella for breakfast in front of the TV. That’s an awful lot of quick release sugar for a child’s breakfast resulting in a peak of energy followed by a dip and lack of concentration in class.

Too much sugar for a child's schools day breakfast!

But these are issues that every school has to deal with. It’s important to engage parents and children in learning about healthier lifestyles. This includes the importance of a good balanced breakfast based on the eat-well plate and why sleep is so important (the NHS recommend ten hours a night for a nine year old child.) It’s also important for schools to support parents in how to manage their child’s behaviour. Parents can’t be expected to know all the answers. Unless children are well rested, healthy and safe they will always struggle with their Latin. Are you listening Mr. Gove?

And the outcome? The parents were able to see exactly what their children were like at school and they and the teachers began to understand each other better.  The teacher changed her behaviour management style in class and the parents put their kids to bed earlier. Result all round.

Ps I’m not commenting further on the teaching and behaviour management of  that schools as I’m sure there will be enough comments elsewhere…but please stop going on about work, work, work.

What do we want? Pensions! When do we want them? Before we’re too old to enjoy them.

When I was a little girl and went to play at my friend’s house we would bandage her teddies and give them pretend medicine but when it was her turn to visit me, we would line up our toys and pretended to be teachers. Many years later she grew up to be a doctor and I grew up to be… well I think you can guess.

When I was that little girl I didn’t think about pensions or the public sector I just wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. And even when I went to university, in between lots of practice snogging boys and drinking too much alcohol, I worked hard to learn my profession. I can’t remember rubbing my hands together in glee and planning to work in the public sector because of the pensions or because it was an easy option. Nascently political, I wanted to teach in state schools so I did.

But teacher pensions are a perk in a job where you get yelled at by parents on a daily basis, abused occasionally by the kids you try to teach and slagged off regularly by the media and politicians. So I’m behind the strikes on Thursday. Michael Gove has already got his knickers in a twist at the thought of striking and calling it a ‘massive inconvenience.’ It will be, especially to some working parents who, as Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore points out, use schools as a child-minding service. It’s frustrating and annoying when train drivers or airport staff go on strike but it’s a last resort and it lets the world know how fed up people are.

The ATL (Association of Teachers and lecturers) is striking for the first time in its 127 year history.

Gove (circled) on strike: teachers will lose respect of they strike .

Perhaps you should start listening to the teachers, Mr Gove. Because of course you’d never go on strike yourself, would you?

For more on this debate read the excellent page in The Guardian. I appear at 1.40pm.

Back where he belongs: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

Remember when smoking was allowed everywhere? If you’re old enough you’ll remember seeing the cinema screen through a haze of smoke, getting stuck in the smoking carriage of a train. Remember coming home from the pub smelling like an ashtray? It seems strange now we’ve got used to publics places being smoke free and it’s a bit like that now with healthy school meals.

Remember when school dinners consisted of turkey twizzlers and sugary puddings? I remember trying to enthuse my Year One class about school dinner by pointing out the delicious mashed potato.

‘That’s not mashed potato,’ sniffed the cook, ‘it’s cauliflower.’

It seems almost unbelievable now that schools are expected to provide healthy food options including salad, vegetables, fruit based desserts and plenty of fresh water . We still have a long way to go in terms of promoting healthier eating options to children but even in our darkest days when the cauliflower was put on to boil at 10am we never stooped to the depths of food hell shown in Jamie’s Food Revolution in Los Angeles. 

Lord Jamie of Burger has featured regularly in this blog. When writing about his Dream School I mentioned that he’s not shy of a challenge. We know that from his tackling of England’s school meals and of course the infamous Norah but he faced his greatest challenge to date when he tried to improve meals in LA schools.

The district superintendent was determined to shut him down from day one and banned him from visiting any LA schools. It might have been the shortest series in history at this point but Saint Jamie of Corndog (Look it up. Ugh) managed to find a school that would let him work with its Culinary Arts students to cook for small groups in school. Door after door was shut in his bewildered, pink face until his filming permits were revoked and you got the impression that if the superintendent could have escorted him to LAX and put him on a plane to the Antarctic on a one way ticket, he would have done. After a few requisite tears, Brigadier Jamie of Curly Fry pulled up his baggy trucker jeans and set up a kitchen opposite the school so parents and students could at least learn about healthy eating after school.

In between the school story was the drive thru owner who was eventually persuaded to serve healthier options and the singe dad who was stuck in a fast food rut but it was really only filler to main school event.

To cut a long story short with the school story, the superintendent stepped down from his post and his replacement immediately agreed to promote healthy foods in his schools. His first act was to ban sugary, flavoured milk from school canteens.

Eat like me, don't dress like me.

What it all boiled down to was one bloke taking offence at another bloke who pointed out that things could be improved and refusing to play ball. It makes me wonder how many improvements in children’s lives are curtailed because some blokes decide that saving face is more important than giving in.

Now free to involve the schools, Captain Jamie of Lard also recruited some local chefs to mentor schools in improving meal and teaching cooking. One chef, shamefacedly, wondered why it had taken an outsider to get them involved with their schools. But sometimes it takes a subjective view to make you realise what’s going wrong. I hope that in a few years’ time the junk food and flavoured milk on the menu of LA schools will be just a bad memory.

Nadine Dorries: Sex and Relationship Education expert

Until recently I hadn’t even heard of Tory MP Nadine Dorries (mid Bedfordshire) but her abstinence bill got Twitter all of a flutter yesterday. She introduced a ten minute rule bill that would require girls aged 13 to 16 to be taught about abstinence during their sex and relationship education (SRE) at schools. MPs worryingly voted 67 to 61, not enough to get the bill passed but enough to seriously worry SRE practitioners. I’ve written about the dichotomy of attidues to sex in the UKuntil I sound like a broken record but there is still such a huge misundertanding about SRE among parents, teachers and now it would appear, MPs.

NOT given to seven year olds!

Good SRE includes plenty of teaching about the emotional side of relationships and engages pupils in discussion. Discussion that includes the reasons that young people may feel pressurized and how to delay sex until they are older or in stable, loving relationship. It’s a given that we want children to be safe, healthy, protected and empowered.

Abstinence teaching is an American favourite (Sarah Palin is a fan. Her daughter got pregnant at sixteen) and is one way for young people, perhaps if they are religious or wish to make that choice. It doesn’t work for everyone, just look at America’s teenage pregnancy figures. They’re even worse than ours. I don’t understand why Ms Dorries hasn’t looked toward countries with exceptionally low TP rates to consider what they are doing right. America in this instance is really not a good example to be following. It’s like copying the kid who is bottom of the class rather than the A grade pupil.

To add insult to injury, Dorries appears very uninformed about SRE in schools herself:

‘The thrust was that girls as young as seven are taught about intercourse, safe sex, how to apply a condom on a banana, where to get condoms, how to detect an STI and that they don’t need to tell their parents anything,
’ she bleats on her blog. (Unfortunate use of the word Thrust Dorries’ own.)

I’ve been in many classrooms in primary schools and can say hand on heart than I have never seen or heard of seven year olds putting condoms on bananas. That would be just wrong. At seven, they’re still talking about healthy, happy relationships and how to keep safe and healthy. It’s exactly this sort of ill informed rubbish that has parents frightened to death about SRE. She also sadly says ‘sex education’ which sounds like it does just that, teach children about sex. We’ve used the title Sex and Relationship Education (or even Relationships and Sex Education) for years now, emphasising that relationships and sex go hand in hand.

‘In schools,’ she adds in her blog, ‘children are taught to base the decision whether or not to have sex on their feelings and wishes.’ All schools? Some schools? One or two schools? I do love a sweeping statement and I’d to know how many schools she’s visited to observe the SRE in action in order to make a statement like this. Urban schools? Rural schools? Faith schools?

I will be writing to my MP –who wasn’t even in parliament for the vote- to try and persuade him that legislation about high quality SRE that has support from the whole school community with the support of experts is what is needed in our schools and this not a pick ‘n’ mix approach by those with a flag to wave.

The Sex Education Show part two

I’m writing this in front of The Jeremy Kyle show. As per usual, there is wrangling over who’s the father, DNA testing and accusations flying around the room. People shagging other people indiscriminately and without contraception or feeling.

And I hear from schools, teachers, politicians and religious groups all the time that PSHE and in particular Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is a waste of time on the school curriculum. Right.

Congratulations to Channel Four then for The Sex Education Show. Show number two last night was very busy. There were the usual squirming, red-faced teenagers being shown real naked bodies. Surprise! They don’t look like they do in that porn you download. Human bodies are a bit wonky and lumpy and hairy and chances are you’ll be sharing a bed with one of them before you know it.

It was interesting to see the programme dealing with arousal, a topic that is a part of very few SRE programmes deal with. There was also information on what the law says about sex. That surprised the students, especially the information about ‘sexting.’

Parents and students were brought together for the excruciating sex talk. Well done to the parents for being frank and helpful but I wonder why they didn’t start talking to their kids before now. I always advise parents that sex and relationships should be an on-going topic of discussion, not a one off when the kids are well past puberty.

All this and Anna Richardson and her scary hair bellowing at WHSmith about putting lads’ mags on lower shelves where small children can see them. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: why is it ok to have magazines full of pneumatic soap stars and models but we get our knickers in a twist when it comes to talking to children about real sex and real relationships? Newspapers work themselves up into a frenzy  with salacious headlines , politicians whinge about teenage pregnancy and soaring STI rates but do nothing about them and religious groups tell us that sex is something that parents should talk to their children about. Absolutely, yes they should. But do they? All of them? With the guidance and support they need?

I was exhausted after watching last night’s episode which may have something to do with the fact that I was at twisting my creaking joints into unnatural positions at yoga but may be more to do with the programme being rather crammed. It feels like the researchers wanted to cover too much but were only given three programmes.

Being The Sex Education Show, it covered just sex but I’d love to see Channel Four coming up with a relationships programme. But I guess that’s a hope too far. Meanwhile on Jeremy Kyle it’s,  ‘You had a one night stand at a party- prove your baby’s mine.’

Sigh.

The Sex Education Show is back: episode one

A while ago, before I was deleted, I got a phone call in the office. Did I know of any local secondary schools that would be willing to take part in the next series of Channel Four’s Sex Education Show? I said I was sure I could rustle one up and, being a good public sector team player, phoned the Teenage Pregnancy Coordinators of the three boroughs where I worked. As far as they were concerned, Channel Four might just have been asking us to club baby seals to death with the quarterly under-eighteen conception stats live on TV.

'I want a hairdo like yours, Auntie Anna.'

But they agreed that I could pass the details on to one or two schools that would make a good fist of it (‘scuse the pun) and I duly did. Imagine my excitement to see one of those schools- Raynes Park High- as the featured school in the first episode. I’ve trained up two of their staff on the PSHE certification programme and they have some really excellent PSHE staff so they understand the importance of good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). I used to be deputy head in a local feeder school so I spotted an en ex pupil or two in the crowd of squirming youngsters.

Parading a bunch of naked men in front of teens is not the usual SRE lesson I would advocate and I felt for the girl puce with embarrassment who managed to squeak, ‘it looks funny,’ when confronted with a giant penis. Poor kid.  Actually I thought the scariest thing about the programme was Anna Richardson’s weird pageboy hairdo.

Elsewhere in the show the retro-coiffed Ms Richardson took to the streets (‘scuse the pun again) to complain about tarty clothing for little girls. Back in the Autumn, Sophie Raworth did an excellent Panorama investigation about the same subject which I blogged about. Matalan and Primark seemed to be the biggest culprits with their sloganned knickers and padded bras for under eights. Richardson spoke to some pre-teens about what they consider attractive and they loved the sparkly pink tat.

A quick aside: when you’re a teacher you get given some brilliant thank you gifts. I’ve received many thoughtful gifts over my years in the classroom but you get some absolute crackers too. The novelty teapot: ‘someone gave this to my Nan but she hates it so my mum said I have to give it to you.’

But my favourite ever gift was the electric picture of a waterfall. Plug it in and the water seems to fall down the blue sparkly plastic. ‘Ooh, ‘ sighed my class, ‘it’s so beeee-yooou -tifal.’ I selflessly offered to keep it in the classroom rather than take it home so we can look at it any time we wanted. The children appreciated my sacrifice and the thing duly came out at the beginning of every day for a whole term.

The point of the story is that small children like gaudy and sometimes, jsts sometimes, we adults have to steer them towards what is sensible. Padded bra, no. nice vest, yes.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode which promises to show how heated one gets when getting it on and how lads’ mags full of tits are displayed at toddler height. It’s that weird British attitude towards sex I’ve blogged about before.

Great first show but Anna, please get a haircut.

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