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.  

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Spending cuts: how much do they know?

I’m running a series of briefings for teachers about the future of our services and what they need to be doing right now. We were about to launch a really exciting new phase of projects in school but of course, this has now been changed and we’re still waiting to see what the replacement will look like.

Sprinkle liberally

 I planned to talk about these changes and link them to the wider picture in education by talking about the white paper. I had an emergency PowerPoint on the white paper courtesy if the DfE but I thought the teachers would know what was in it and I’d only need to chat briefly about it.

 Wrong.

 ‘So who’s read the white paper then,’ I asked cheerily.

 Silence.

 ‘Who knows the things in the white paper that will affect your day to day working life?’

 A tumbleweed rolled by.

 So I spent more time than I intended on informing the group about the white paper and how it will affect their schools: changes in behaviour management, a greater focus on bullying and synthetic phonics (luckily the two are not inter-related), exclusions, academies and free schools. Their head teachers are probably well-informed but sometimes the infromation doesn’t always filter down to the class teachers.

 The other aspect of the changes they weren’t entirely aware of were the cuts in local authority staff. My lot know that my post has been deleted but I don’t think they yet realise the implications of this. When they need me they pick up the phone and ask or drop me e-mail and I help to the best of my abilities. It’s my job.

 A head teacher phoned me this morning and explained that some of her parents were very anxious about a certain policy the school had just redeveloped and how she wasn’t sure what to do.

 ‘Would you like me to come and run a workshop for your parents?’ I said.

 ‘You’ve just sprinkled magic fairy dust over my day!’ she replied.

 I think this means she was pleased. And it solves everyone’s problems: the parents are reassured and informed, the staff can get back to teaching and I’ve got the knowledge at my fingertips to run sessions like these.

 It will be interesting to see how schools react when they don’t have the support of staff  whose job it is to translate government policy, share their expertise with schools and be there for them. Sometimes just for a chat and a bit of support and maybe to sprinkle a little fairy dust on someone’s day.

The Independent way to choose a secondary school

The Independent’s correspondent Richard Garner has written a guide to education.  Being the Independent, it was very… independent but I liked the questions so have appropriated some of them for my own not so independent purposes:

There are three secondary schools in my area. One is an academy, the second a local authority secondary school and the third a Catholic Church school. Oh and they say an independent free school is to open next year. Which shall I choose for my daughter?

Blimey aren’t you lucky? If I were you I’d wait until that free school sets up, especially if it’s the one being run by that bald bloke who wrote that book about alienating people. Debating club should be fun.

What is the difference between an academy and a local authority maintained secondary school?

Well the kids at the academy wear purple and yellow blazers and shiny shoes and the kids at the comp wear black hoodies over their very small very wide ties. If that doesn’t help you, you might wish to delve deeper and look at boring stuff like educational attainment, behaviour and ethos.

Ok I’ve checked out the academy now. It seems it was a failing secondary school that has been given a facelift and brand new buildings and is now run by a bunch of hedge-fund managers. How come?

Well mainly because the feckless local authorities simply can’t be relied upon to support the schools in their area so it’s best we hand them over to the bankers. After all, they can be trusted to get things right, can’t they?

I’m unsure about the academy though. So now what do I do to make sure Endellion gets the best education possible?

Take a look at those impenetrable league tables for each school and try to make or tail of the figures. Especially those figures about value added. Don’t whatever you do go and visit the school to get a feel for it, talk to teachers, pupils or parents to get a balanced view or speak to the head teacher. And for goodness sake don’t make a decision based on the unique needs of your child.

Right I’ve done that. The one that comes out best on both schools is the catholic school. Should I go there?

Well him upstairs does keep an eye on faith schools so I expect to see you at mass at the church of Sweet Baby Jesus and the Wee Donkey on Sunday (don’t forget to pack your cheque book). Make sure you arrange for some adequate sex education because we wouldn’t want little Endellion falling for the nasty charms of one of those comprehensive louts and catholic schools don’t teach about contraception.

Everything clear? good, thought so.

A tale of two academies

I’m in two minds about academies. There seem to be two types at the moment: those that are run by consortiums with huge amounts of money to throw into their schools and those that think that changing their name from Shankem Comprehensive to The Gove Academy for Young Ladies and Gentlemen will somehow magically raise attainment.

 The former type of academy like the Harris consortium or the Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) charity set up by French billionaire and Mr. Uma Thurman, Arpad ‘Arki’  Busson, have a strong set of values and beliefs as well as a bulging wallet.

 ARK now run eight academies in England, with six of them in London. Take, for example, the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton. Although the school has been running since 2004, it has just moved into a £50 million building designed by Zaha Hadid, who comes fresh from designing the 2010 aquatics centre in Stratford.

 The school’s motto is ‘excellence, endeavour and self-discipline’ and there is a strict code of conduct as well as a clear teaching and learning structure and a programme of extra curricular enrichment.

 The first photos of the new building look incredible- a cross between an airport lounge and a P&O cruise ship, the school is designed to maximise learning. I’m wondering if I donned a uniform (blazer smartly pressed, top shirt button done up and shoes polished) they’d take me in for a couple of years.

 But not all academies are like this. Most remain in their tired old buildings with their tired old grounds and their tired old staff.

 With outstanding schools being encouraged to become academies by the coalition government I worry about future academies. Mr. Gove is keen for new academies to be released from the evil grip of their local authorities who only exist, of course, to make trouble for schools and to badger head teachers.

 Boo to the HR department!

Down with legal services and admissions!

Off with advisers, consultants and IT support!

Stuff your catering contract and your school library service.

 Some current academies continue to churn out poor GCSE results and improvements are made at snails’ pace.  A rose by any other name does not always smell so sweet.

 In my experience there is one major factor in any school improvement, be it academy, primary, secondary, special or PRU: inspirational school leadership.

 This means that a modern Head has to be business minded as well as wise about education. They need to have charisma, a firm handshake and skin the thickness of a dehydrated rhino that doesn’t moisturise.

 Heads need to be able to drum up support from business, from parents, from local communities and from pupils.

 They need to be able to manage a budget, mop a floor, write a business plan, fend off a ranting parent, take assembly, meet the chair of governors, praise a good piece of work and write the admissions policy.

 At the same time.

 Before break time.

With a smile.

 I couldn’t do it and I’m in awe of anyone who can.

 So let’s turn our focus to what makes a really good leader (no, Hitler and Pol Pot don’t count) and ensure that our children have the best school leaders possible with the best support possible from the government.

 Academy or not.

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