We don’t need food in schools…

Mary Berry, the doyen of AGA and all things home baking, has been that a lady I have grown up with through both my education and my career.  She is a lady I hold in high regard and when I first met her I realised that she was just that, a real lady.  Her mannerisms, how she conducts herself and her words make her such a kind and beautiful human being.
Untitled-1Mary has been known within AGA for a lot more years than I.  She has been a great friend of AGA and a few years back at an AGA Demonstrators conference she addressed us as the after dinner speaker.  I remember Mary telling us that she trained at the Le Cordon Bleu Cookery Schools, one of which I first worked at when I moved to London.  I remember Mary’s work actually trained me when I was taking my A-Level Home Economics back in Portadown College all those years ago;  I was taught with Mary Berry’s “Cookery in Colour” – one of the first ever cookery books that was filled with colour pictures.  Now, please be careful, I’m not that old. I am in fact just 34!  But Mary’s work has featured heavily in my career. She has written over 70 cookbooks which is incredible.  I have written 8 so far and I know the amount of writing, research and testing that is involved.  The AGA Book that is still shipped with every AGA purchased is written by Mary. In my world it is the ‘other’ Bible.
Last night the first episode of the new series of “The Great British Bake Off” was screened.  I do love that series and the way that Mary has used it to encourage British people to get back to baking.  However, last week I found an article in the Telegraph.
I have to say I agree in one way and not in another.  Yes cookery in schools is a nice idea but what will the students learn?  I find with cooking at school (and many cookery schools at that) they just teach recipes. It is more just like teaching a nursery rhyme like “Jack and Jill went up the hill“. Not that useful.

Is cooking the whole picture?

Is cooking the whole picture?

However, I feel that teaching food skills is much more important.  For example, teaching the process of ‘rubbing in’ teaches the students how to make pastry, bread, pasta, crumble and some cakes. Teaching the application of heat with food teaches roasting, baking, grilling, frying, stir-frying etc.  A little bit of nutrition goes a long way. Simply learning what is good for you and what is not so good will help the avoidance of junk food (hopefully) and give the student the opportunity to know a skill for life that is a healthy balanced diet.  My mum is a home economics teacher and has taught this for years. She taught me well but the theory of this is not necessarily for all.  It’s a subject dear to my heart that I have adopted as my profession as Home Economics.
Jamie Oliver has worked on this for years, I applaud him.  Mary has taught countless families and individuals with her kind manner on TV, in the press and in her books how to cook well and live full happy lives with great diets.
Mary, thank you for taking this stand and bringing the attention of the nations health to the fore, especially in a time of legacy for our country after the Olympics.  My work with the International Federation for Home Economics across the globe has been working on this for years.  Home Economics Victoria in Australia do similar work in schools, advising teachers, modernising the curriculum and promoting that great book “Cookery the Australian Way“.  Likewise my colleagues in The Ontario Home Economics Association, Canada.
I urge the global Governments to talk to people like Mary Berry and myself and to learn from us. We all need to understand  that food is not just for cooking and that it is there as a life skill.  Home Economics dovetails into many other subjects and like English and Mathematics it’s one we all need through life.
Home Economics is not cooking.  It’s life skills, it’s about factors that affect a household in terms of food, clothing, shelter, energy.  In essence what comes into a house and what goes from it.  Chefs’ are not trained this life skill.  Celebrity Chefs have the media (after all Jamie Oliver is reported as wanting to have Brad Pitt play him  but Mary and I and the global home economics associations ARE the ones to help teach this important area of education.

32 thoughts on “We don’t need food in schools…

  1. James, I enjoyed reading your blog. As a Home Economist in Education I share your sentiments. Food in my school is extremely popular amongst the student body where the curriculum I developed focuses upon skills for life rather than designing food products (D&T). However, I do have concerns over the future of food teaching in schools because of the cuts in initial teacher training places and increased tuition fees. We await with baited breath for Goves white paper on Curriculum reform. Sadly, our subject may become the poor relation .

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been a keen cook from childhood but none of my skills were learnt at school (most were learnt from my mother’s cookery books, many by Mary Berry). I think a major problem is Home Economics has been replaced by Food Technology. We had the opportunity to do little actual cooking, with the onus being more on product design. In 3 years I think I only had the opportunity to cook 1 thing in school! So I bought more books, watched tv programmes and largely taught myself.

    • Food Technology was brought into English schools (not Scotland or Northern Irish) and I found this incredibly sad, students from my point of view should be taught to work with food, to learn about it, not how to design a product, surely thats Art and Technology class rather than food?

      • It was, we used to be on rotation between that, textiles, resistant materials (wood work), and graphic design. I think my life would have gone down a very different path if I’d been able to do home economics. I probably would have been working with food rather than just blogging about it!

        • Thats a fair point, I always wondered why it was called “resistant materials”!!

          The issue I have with my company is finding anyone in the UK degree educated who really knows food, I mean even after a food degree now many cant make a simple white sauce, yet those who can from cookery school dont understand consumerism. In industry where I work the Home Economist is the “voice of the consumer”. It’s so sad (and detrimental to society) that there is no link being taught between the consumer and marketing and the r&d departments.

  3. I could not have said this better myself. In the states Home Ec or FACS seems to be diminishing. The art of working with food, understanding its reactions to all ingredients and its effect on life is a skill that all need. My students usually give me attitude about making a pizza dough over a 2 day period – but until you get your hands into the dough, you do not truly understand the crust.
    Thanks for your insight James

  4. As a mum to a 10-year-old boy, I really hope he learns hands-on cookery skills when he starts secondary school next year – he loves helping me out in the kitchen and is always up for whipping up treats, but I want him to not only learn more about healthy eating but also to actually learn how to fend for himself in later life. Cooking is a life skill and it should not be overlooked.

  5. James, what a great article and one that is very close to my heart. As a Deputy Headteacher with almost twenty years teaching experience, I firmly believe that Food, Cookery, Catering (or whatever the government of the day wishes to call it) is vital in the curriculum. Schools are charged with teaching youngsters not only the subject knowledge they need to pass GCSEs and A levels in order to gain the qualifications needed to peruse a career, but also responsible for reaching life skills such as: health and sex education, social skills, drug and alcohol awareness and COOKERY! Without the most basic culinary skills, how will young people be able to appreciate how to prepare a sensible meal within a balanced diet? Without a basic understanding of food and nutrition, there is a danger that our future generations will become “take-away junkies”. This will not only affect their health and economic well-being, but it will put a drain on the NHS and result in more people being unable to work in later life due to dietary problems such as diabetes and obesity. All these reasons and more are why I believe that Cookery should be firmly placed in the curriculum and why my own school in Central London actively teaches Cookery to all pupils at key stage 3 and then offers Catering as a GCSE subject at key stage 4.

  6. When I first read the byline, my first reaction was “Of course we need food in school. Many kids come to school hungry and they learn better when fed, and there are fewer discipline problems.” Then I continued to read your blog and realized you were making a different point – that providing food at school is a technical response (quick fix) to the systemic problem of not teaching people life skills (including food skills) because it is assumed that “everyone has to eat [wear clothes, spend money, clean house etc etc) so we don’t need special courses on that.” Home economics courses get cancelled because they are considered to be fringe courses (like art, music, drama, theatre, physical education and industrial arts).Those in power succumb to the lure of the dominant ideology (belief system), which holds that schools are there to prepare people for jobs and to make a country economicall compeitive in the global market. Hence, they support, math, reading and science and cut everything else. Ironically, and encouragingly, studies are now showing that students who have access to the ‘fringe’ topics do exceedingly better at the other topics. There is hope! We need to make those in power appreciate that students need “life skills” so they can be prosperous, caring and responsible citizens. One of those life skills is how to feed everyone!

  7. Sue,

    your line “Many kids come to school hungry and they learn better when fed, and there are fewer discipline problems.” shows how food is more a physiological factor to learning and not just for making ‘nice food’.

    It’s great to hear how you follow Gary’s point above about how life skills subjects are just as important as academic ones. Let me stress as someone who has a Masters in Home Economics how academic it gets!

  8. Well said, James.

    Our students need to make better food choices at school and at home. Such life choices

    Food skills are not devloped in one quick lesson. If we increase food education in a coed
    classroom we provide basic principles of food purchasing, food safety, preparation and nutrition. We can teach students the pitfalls of some food labels. We can take meal planning out of the fast food lane and into the home kitchen where family time is also an investment. As a Home Economist in Ontario Canada, I could not agree more. Schools boards need to listen.

    Boards need to hear the cry for help on this subject.

  9. I totally agree with your comments James. I have been working on a voluntary basis and with colleagues have set up a Food Education Trust which visits every school in our town. We run cookery days in primary schools where the children not only learn about the recipes but how the food is grown and wher it comes from. They learn cookery skills and have the opportunity to eat the food that they have cooked for themselves. Our courses also extend to the secondary schools where small numbers of students with special needs are selected by the schools. Not only have these students learnt a life skill but we have noticed a enormous boost in their confidence. The most important thing that we try to do is to make cooking enjoyable. Ironically many have chosen to follow catering courses at college, athough they had not originally chosen food as a GCSE option. So there will be an economic benefit to the country too.

    Mary Reader

  10. The worst thing that happened in schools was when Home Economics went under the wing of Technology and we found ourselves teaching students how to make cardboard boxes for cereal bars.

    How ironic that schools who ripped out perfectly good cookers and Home Economics rooms are now reinstating them.

    You are so right James – this is a valuable life skill, crucial to us all. How can it not be part of every school’s curriculum?

  11. Good article James. Whilst I applaud the awareness of nutritional value in cooking which is espoused by the likes of Jamie Oliver, it should be remembered that behind every celebrity chef is a hard-working, professional Home Economist working hard! We, as Home Economists, are the ones who provide the foundational education at school to allow all that culinary creativity we see on TV to be realised.

    • Thank you, however, being a Home Economist in industry I now disagree, where as the home economist used to work closely with Chefs on TV to provide the copy etc from a consumer point of I have lost out on job (remember I have a MA in Home EConomics and world cookbook award, so slightly qualified!) to people undercutting price that come from cookery schools.

  12. Let’s face it….as a traditionally gendered field, home economics or FACS has been deemed as less important than a second or third class in math or science. Today’s FACS teachers combine family nutrition with food science and food preparation to give students the necessarily knowledge and skills for life. Many districts have “followed the dollar” and converted their programs into career-based culinary programs. Only a few students will be professional chefs….most of us could use the skills developed and a knowledge base in a comprehensive foods class. Our school districts and state representatives need to know we support FACS programs because we want our kids to be successful human beings.

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  14. As an educator in Home Economics (a degree in Food and Nutrition, and a PGCE in Food Technology Specialism) I too was appalled at how Food Technology took the students away from the food and life skills.
    I am fortunate enough in my position as Head of Home Economics to be able to write the work schemes for the students aged 11-18 who pass through my door each year. With the exception of the exam groups, my Key Stage three students can also pass the fridge challenge (almost a ready steady cook, as in take four ingredients from the fridge and make me something tasty to eat) and all also understand about budget and waste, something that is seriously lacking in the country as a whole.
    I am by no means a food guru, and as many here have said, I also bow down to the Mary Berry’s, Delia’s, Jamie’s (and of course James’) of our cook book shelf, but like James says, teaching a recipe is like learning something by rote.
    Unless you can use the same skill in a different situation you have not learnt the skill. My students also have to produce a restaurant quality dish for one person from seasonal local produce for a competition against all the secondary schools in the area, another great moment to see who can and who needs more help.
    My students make me very proud several times a year, but I am also saddened by students who honestly did not realise that carrots came with skins on, or that chips originally came from a potato (not from Iceland and one great student responded). As a country we need to do more to educate our students and make them self sufficient adults who can make something tasty and healthy and most of all enjoy the process.
    So not only do we need food in schools, we need more of it, and we need people who are skilled and enthusiastic teaching it. HG

  15. Food literacy in school is what is needed. This includes food preparation but much, much more. Quick fixes are not the solution. It is vital that teachers who are efficacious in the delivery of food literacy are those reposible for this work, not chefs or cooks.

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