Schools face kitchen shortage

06 October 2005
Schools face kitchen shortage

The "full house" signs were up at the Labour Party conference as Education Secretary Ruth Kelly delivered her keynote speech. The crowd murmured its approval in response to the well-rehearsed lines and she got a warm round of applause for her commitment to ban junk food in school vending machines.

But some people felt the main ingredient of the speech was missing. Where was the part about every school having a kitchen that could provide hot, fresh meals for its children?

Many may be surprised to learn that not only are there a significant number of schools in England without kitchens suitable for preparing fresh food, but there are premises currently being built which will not contain them.

This week's School Meals Review Panel report says that kitchens should be "prioritised" in new-build schools and that Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts should not "impose barriers to the improvement of school food". The wording is alarmingly vague and, for some, comes too late anyway.

A report released last month by the trade union Unison found that, of the 417 schools currently under the PFI, either new-build, refurbished or rebuilt, nearly 30% did not have a kitchen capable of cooking a meal from fresh ingredients.

Opposing PFI The union has waged a long campaign opposing PFI, which has been increasingly used as a vehicle for new investment as part of the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme.

The demise of the school kitchen began before PFI, however. It was under the Thatcher government in the 1980s that school meals provision was deregulated, with the result that many schools chose to convert kitchens into classrooms.

"The mood of that time was it was more important to spend money on purely educational areas," says Barbara Chevis, head teacher of Burlington Junior School in Kingston, Surrey, and one of a minority of teachers who has taken the issue of school meals into her own hands.

Burlington's original kitchen area had been used as a small teaching room since the 1980s, with children bringing in pack lunches. Chevis decided a change was needed and saved part of her local education authority (LEA) budget over three years to create a kitchen. It cost 80,000 and is operated by Pride Catering.

Chevis's efforts are to be applauded, but many schools claim they are not financially capable of repeating her feat.

The National Association of Head Teachers has welcomed the ban on junk food in vending machines, but says that the Government's £280m funding towards improving the standard of school meals in England is not enough.

General secretary Mick Brookes says that many schools do not have kitchens, and the money available is not enough to provide them. He also points out that, while £280m appears to be a lot of money, it actually works out at only about 12,000 per school.

"Many schools have made excellent progress in beginning to educate the palates of our nation's children," says Brookes. "But to expect schools to provide a quality meal for less than the price of the cheapest unhealthy burger does not stand up to serious scrutiny."

So if, as it appears, the Government is not yet providing enough money, what are the alternatives?

Some LEAs are pooling school resources to create a central kitchen that can provide quality food to several schools in the area.

Another option is to return to PFI. PFI essentially works by a school or LEA taking out a "mortgage" on its premises and then paying the cost back yearly to the PFI company. This method has received criticism, however, as the repayment money is generally ring-fenced and has priority over a school's other budgetary demands.

One business with experience of partnering schools is NewSchools, a firm that manages seven school PFI contracts covering 53 schools in the UK. Director Andrew Mitchell says that it is "possible, but unlikely" that the future will see a fresh kitchen in every school.

It comes down to the financial pressure on the LEA and individual schools," he says. "We can provide fresh kitchens for them, but it does add on considerable extra cost. This type of kitchen is also not currently a requirement from the Department of Education."

Despite the significant achievement of Jamie Oliver et al in getting the Government to at least recognise the crisis in school meals, there is still a long way to go and no clear answer in sight.

Steve Davies, research fellow at Cardiff University and author of the Unison report into PFI and school catering, believes the solution is simple. "It will clearly cost a lot of money to provide a truly healthy school meals programme, but it is actually a very wise investment," he says. "Penny-pinching now could cost millions in the future, as healthy school meals have a multiple dividend. Healthier children will be less of a drain on the NHS and will learn better, and sourcing quality ingredients locally means a knock-on effect for the economy of the local authority."

School meals need an extra £550m >>

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