High Noon – Let’s make lunch time the highlight of the school day

saladMichael Gove’s bid to bring back the spirit of the O-Level with the English Baccalaureate Certificate could be replicated with school meals  (but maybe leaving out the tapioca).

Just like the exam system itself, school meals have been the subject of much debate for many years, with the pendulum swinging back and forth from bland to junk just as qualifications swing from exam only to course work based. But now that Michael Gove is switching back to the O-Level style option with the English Baccalaureate Certificate is it time to look back at school meals from the same era? In many ways the answer must be no. How many people of a certain age look favourably on over cooked vegetables and tapioca?

But where we can learn from the era is with the civilising part that eating together can play in fulfilling a basic human need at a far higher level. Just as the idea of the new exams is to prepare young people for the next stage, whether they are continuing with study or going the apprenticeship route, we can inspire them with a love of food and of eating together.  The problem is that often those who work as part of a school’s senior management team have a poor relationship with food themselves – they just don’t get the importance, relevance and civilising benefits of a well-run catering operation. These schools will find that the uptake for school meals will decrease whereas for  those who offer a genuinely healthy, well prepared, well-cooked tasty offer, uptake will increase and therefore students will eat together in a civilised way.

The problem here is that many schools do not have the dining area space to allow all or even a majority of students to sit down hence the rise in popularity of the takeaway option. And while this misses out on the eating together option it can still offer a good takeaway service with allocated ‘healthy eating areas’ that can still provide tasty and nutritious options. And just as Gove wants to make the exam system right for today’s world of work he has also brought in experts in providing food for today’s way of living – the London-based Leon chain, to see if they can do something to revolutionise food to match his changes to exams.  I think the Leon model (very fast, very healthy food all served in recyclable disposable containers) would be fantastic for certain schools and make very good economic sense for schools and contractors.

Our experience is that presented with the options students do want healthy tasty and fast food. Pasta is a perennial favourite with stir fry meals (both fish and vegetarian) currently gaining in popularity. Having said that our most popular meal continues to be roast lunch and apple crumble and custard, which would certainly not have been out of been out of place in the days of O-Levels.

Early indications of what Michael Gove is introducing with the new EBC is that we’ve gone partially back to the old style of exam but not entirely, just as we might look at going back to the old style school meals – but not entirely!

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Justin Fairhall

Justin Fairhall is the founder and managing director of Lunchtime UK, an independent catering company based in Cambridge and London supplying meals to schools and colleges in the South East of England. Lunchtime UK offers fresh, locally sourced ingredients prepared from scratch every day by qualified chefs, with an emphasis on tasty and nutritious food that young people want to eat, served by friendly, helpful staff in pleasant surroundings.

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