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.


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


Jamie’s Dream School

You have to hand it to old Jamie Oliver: he’s not shy about a challenge. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the first episode of Dream School but gave in and tuned in for the second helping. So what does Saint Jamie of School Dinner know about running a school? Well, nothing but he’s well known for having an incredibly successful career following an incredibly unsuccessful school career so he can empathise with the students who have also failed at, or been failed by, school. When it came to his cooking lesson he made a good fist of it (B+). Others were not so lucky.

 David Starkey, privileged, highly intelligent and passionate about his topic wasn’t a huge success. In fact his behaviour was such that, were he a newly qualified teacher in an ordinary school, he’s have been in serious trouble. Calling a kid ‘fat’ and then whining that he didn’t start it is not very professional or indeed mature. Jamie, bless his little turkey twizzlers, handled Starkey incredibly well and although the historian insisted that the students were ‘feral’, Oliver didn’t give up and got him back in the classroom. Mark: F. See me.

 Alastair Campbell equally came a cropper. After humbly showing the class a TV clip of himself in pitbull mode and talking about how fabulous and brilliant he was, he got the students debating. Except it wasn’t proper debating with the proper debating rules that most schools use. The rules are there for a reason: they stop the discussion from becoming a bun fight where anyone can join in. More importantlly, it also stops the debate becoming personal. Campbell’s debate ended up being very personal and a student walked out in tears. Mark: D- (at least he didn’t call any of them fat.)

 Jazzie B of Soul ll Soul fame ran a brilliant music class. He didn’t assume that the students would love him because he was famous. He didn’t assume that his topic would be inalienably interesting to all of them. He praised their efforts and challenged them to do more. He established good behaviour and maintained it consistently. This is a man who obviously knows teens and knows how to capture their interest. Mark: A+

 Photographer Rankin also had a good connection with the students and drew the best out of them and, as with Jazzie B, he didn’t assume that he was the star of the show. Mark: A

 Teaching isn’t as easy as it might seem.

 A lot of comment on the programme has focussed on the poor behaviour and attitudes of the students so I’d like to say a word in their defence. The voiceover told us that several of these kids had been rejected by their chaotic families and were living in council flats alone. Now imagine being rejected by those you love, being alone and vulnerable and not seeing much of a future for yourself beyond alcohol, drugs and the job centre. There’s no one in the world who will stand up for you or to be on your side.

 Now, are you ready to get yourself up in the morning, go to class, sit still, listen and learn?

 And what happens to thes youngsters once the programme finishes and all the fuss has died down? I can only hope that the producers will continue to support the students and that the celebrities might find it in their hearts and busy schedules to be there for them.

No sex please we’re British

Panorama last night focused on the premature sexualisation of children. Sophie Raworth, newsreader, journalist and mother of three young children looked at how high street fashion encourages girls to become sexual objects at a young age and how youngsters use social networking sites to post up pictures of themselves in provocative poses. Sensibly, Raworth didn’t go for the panic option but emphasised that, as parents and educators, we need to be more aware.

There’s a strange dichotomy in this country about sex and it’s peculiarly British. We do like a bit of oo-er matron and saucy seaside postcard humour but when it comes to teaching children and young people about safe and responsible sexual behaviour we get all squeamish about it.

The government has promised support responsible advertising to children but there’s a lot of advertising to adults that children are exposed to via television and billboards. A couple of years ago a product aimed at men was promoting a competition on their website. On the sides of buses they advertised their website using three sets of leopard skin bikini-clad breasts for the www. Hilarious and oh-so-cheeky for the young men it was aimed at but not so much for the youngsters taking that bus to school.

Now I’m not being prudish about bodies in advertising but I’d feel much more comfortable about this if I knew that really good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)- note the relationships bit- was being taught at school and at home. Good SRE teaches knowledge, skills and attitudes equally and gives children and young people a really solid base of understanding. Parents often worry that knowledge alone (the facts in isolation) is being taught in the classroom and that lessons are value-free. Skills (how to say no, being able to be a good friend, how to ask for help etc) and attitudes (how I feel about relationships, what my cultural/ religious/ familial values are etc) are also crucial but are often missed through poor teaching or lack of training and embarrassment by teachers and parents alike. Schools have no obligation to teach any elements of SRE that don’t fall under the Science National Curriculum.

And inflammatory headlines like this, ‘Ministers force through compulsory sex education for five-year-olds without asking parents,’ (Daily Mail November 2008) tend to throw everyone into a blind panic and have us envisaging small children making inapproriate models in play dough.

This puts the SRE agenda back and ensures that children aren’t taught the skills the need for the modern world until it’s often too late. The previous government was all set to make SRE compulsory in schools but years of prevaricating meant that the bill didn’t make it past wash-up at the beginning of the year and the current government have no plans to put SRE on the curriculum.

The perception of women and girls also seems to a problem. While the women of past generations fiought for the right to vote, the right to be educated and the right to be respected, we seem to be giving this generation mixed messages.

In the Panorma programme Sophie Raworth looked at sexualised clothing and fioud a cute pink t-shirt with the words ‘future footballer’s wife’ on the front. Since when has footballer’s wife been an ambition for a girl? What happened to standing on your own two feet and having aspirations of your own?

A colleague and I ran an activity with teachers on a training day last year. We bought some tweenage magazines aimed at the nine to fourteen market and asked the teachers to imagine they were from another planet and had no understanding of human culture. We then asked them to note down what the magazines alone told them about humans. Most of the answers were to do with pink and shiny and how to attract boys. Next time you’re in a newsagent, take a peek at what’s out there for pre-teens and what messages they’re getting. Hide your copy of Sugar in a copy of The Times or something.

There’s a dark side to the sexualisation and objectification of girls. There’s a real rise in sexual bullying among young people. It’s a fairly new phenomenon so there isn’t a huge amount of research about it and schools are having to learn on the hoof. The local authority in which I work is worried about this rise and is working hard to address it. Sexual bullying can be linked to gang initiation but it can also be as simple as boys seeing girls as simply sexual objects rather than human beings with feelings and having no undertanding of approriate behaviour. And it’s not just girls and boys. Same sex bullying is also out there.

Womankind Worldwide, who campaign against violence against women define sexual bullying as:

‘Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality is used as a weapon by boys or by girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or by use of technology. For example:

  • Using words that refer to someone’s sexuality as a general put down (like calling something ‘gay’ to mean that it is not very good)
  • Using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone a ‘slut’)
  • Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape
  • Gossiping about someone’s sex life – including the use of graffiti
  • Touching someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Touching parts of someone’s body that they don’t want to be touched
  • Forcing someone to act in a sexual way’

If we want to empower children and young people to make safe decisions and to have happy and fulfilling relationships, then as a society we need to work harder at teaching self respect and respect for others and it starts with every one of us.

My big fat portfolio career

I’ve decided that given my current employment circumstances I’d quite like a portfolio career. Apparently the phrase was coined in the eighties by management guru Charles Handy but in these straitened times the portfolio career is seeing a revival. And I want one. 

The idea is that instead of the one boring, safe career, the modern business-person has two or three strands of work allowing for greater flexibility and creativity. On better days I think that this could work for me: perhaps some consultancy projects mixed with a bit of teaching and more time for writing stuff (I’ve just started writing and selling magazine articles.)

Up until now I’ve been a steady Eddie. I’ve always had a job with a pay packet attached and someone else to sort out the stuff like tax and insurance and pension. I enjoy the security a steady job brings and I know that being self-employed is sometimes famine or feast. Luckily I’m sufficiently scrooge-like with my money to squirrel it away for a rainy day or for the taxman.

I’ve had a look on the web for a bit of inspiration and found a test that evaluates whether you’re ready for a portfolio career. So am I ready? Well, sort of. The test decrees that I’m not a natural so no surprise there but perhaps more hopefully says that, ‘you could have a portfolio career but you will have think and plan very carefully before making (sic) the plunge.’

It then suggests that I look at where I’ve scored lower than two points. Apparently being a perfectionist is not a good thing for portfolio careerists. It can get you bogged down in minutiae when you should be off searching for that next contract. I need to work on my risk taking, my assertiveness and rather surprisingly, my boredom threshold. For the question ‘I get bored easily,’ I gave myself a 1 (strongly disagree.) Now my mother always taught me that only boring people get bored and I do like to stick at a project be it reading a book, finishing a piece of work or listening to one of Mr. R’s interminable stories.

So I have some personal homework to do before I get the elbow in March. I’d like to write some more about portfolio careers but I’m bored now.

Ooh look it’s lunchtime.

See, I’m learning.

Ps: For the next two days I will be out of the office attending a course called ‘How to become a consultant.’ Portfolio career, here I come.

The big special needs cover up

As many as half of all pupils are identified as having Special Educational Needs according to a report by Ofsted. Pupils simply need better teaching and improved pastoral care, the report says. Pull yourself together, stop snivelling about your dyslexia and knuckle down, old chap. Twenty extra spellings and a run around the playground should sort you out.

 I remember a boy I taught in my year one class (5/6 year olds). He was struggling like mad with the curriculum but clearly had potential and needed extra support. Soon, I felt, he would become demotivated. And when you’re demotivated by learning at five it’s a long, hard slog back. If you ever make it.

 When his dad came in I explained that I’d like to place his son at stage one of the SEN register. Much as some people think that teachers (perhaps as a staffroom game, accompanied by wine) pull names from a hat, chuck a random label at them (ADHD, dyslexic, ASD) and present it to the parents as a given, teachers need permission from the parents. The dad was concerned. As it turned out he was labelled remedial when he was at school and sent into the special class. Now we all know from our own schooldays what we called the remedials. And it wasn’t nice. But once I explained that nowadays it simply meant his son would get some extra support- mainly from me, his own class teacher- and that the parents would be involved every step of the way, the dad was happy.

 The little boy worked hard and got the supported start he needed, his parents supported him too and within in a year we took him off the SEN register.

 Trying to get a pupil adequate support because they have a specific need is like wading through treacle, however. I taught another little boy who clearly had some very specific needs. I observed his behaviour and came to the conclusion that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. This was not an arbitrary label for the sake of having a diagnosis. I did my research, I spoke to teachers who taught pupils with ASD and watched as this little boy struggled to form relationships with his peers and hid paperclips and bluetac in his pockets. No picture or poster hung with bluetac was safe. His other obsession was switching off plugs and I got quite used to walking down to assembly behind this child and switching everything back on again with one hand and re-hanging pictures with the other.

 If only I could get some specialist support for this boy, who was bright as a button, he’d be able to make progress. We called in the educational psychologist who agreed with our diagnosis but couldn’t possible statement him because they’d used up that year’s allocation of statements and one more would exceed the LA’s targets. They sent in the behaviour support worker who suggested that I should talk to him more and play board games.

 Head. Brick. Wall.

This is my experience of trying to get a child properly statemented and any parent who recognises that their own child has additional needs but has been dismissed for being fussy or demanding will understand.

 Children need support that suits them and their needs. If they get that support they thrive at school. If not, then school must seem like hell. If children have supportive families they will benefit enormously but if the child has parents or carers who are intimidated by the complicated systems or have problems of their own to contend with then the journey is made so much more difficult for all involved.

 So do these children just need better teaching or improved pastoral care? Every child deserves the best teaching and the best support.

 Do they need to be removed from the SEN register? Only if it’s in the very best interests of the child.

 And how will we support teachers in working with these children? Through local authority support and training. Except that local authority support won’t exist soon because of cuts. And perhaps if we remove children from the SEN register we won’t have to stump up the additional money for them because…

 Suddenly everything becomes clear.

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