Sharon was asked to deliver the keynote speech to the Local Authority Caterers Association Eastern Region conference in London, on the School Food Plan and the engagement of school leaders with health and nutrition issues.
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I should begin by saying that when I was originally approached to speak at this conference I was the Shadow Minister for Children & Families with responsibility for school food and healthy schools – a job which I held for three years until a few weeks ago, when I was asked to work on Women and Equalities issues.
However, I have also been working on these issues on a cross-party basis as Chair of the All Party Group on School Food, and I will certainly continue to do so; it’s therefore in that capacity that I sit here this morning.
My interest in school food policy goes back a long time now, and some of you might know I was one of the people whose campaign for universal free school meals resulted in the Durham and Newham pilots, and the manifesto pledge – which was fully funded, regardless of what Mr Gove says – to extend the pilots and for free school meal entitlement to be rolled out to all children living below the poverty line.
My starting point in all of this is improving the health and educational outcomes of every child, and therefore social mobility along with it, but it’s not just an idealistic vision.
As the Measuring Up report from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges most recently reinforced, which I’m sure I don’t need to say to the people who are gathered here today, was that the rate of childhood obesity is nothing short of a national scandal, which will cost us tens of billions over the next few decades.
Overweight children nearly always become overweight and unhealthy adults, who generally cost the NHS far more in treating preventable illnesses.
But at the same time as we are worrying about overweight children, we also have reports piling up of malnourished children - many of our poorest children and those from chaotic homes coming to school having had no breakfast, or with lunchboxes that contain nothing more than a bag of crisps and a chocolate biscuit – if they’re lucky.
Survey after survey from the teaching unions reports teachers having to bring in food for kids who arrive in their class exhausted because they haven’t had enough of the right food to give them the energy they need to learn.
For many of those kids, it’s not just breakfast they’ve missed – they might not have had anything nutritious – or even at all – the following evening either.
As has been said so many times, for many children their free school meal – if they are entitled to one – may well be the only decent meal they get.
For me, it’s therefore absolutely crucial that as many of the children for whom that might apply are actually getting one, and that the meal they get gives them as much of the nutrients and energy they need as possible.
And again, that’s actually about saving money in the long run as well, both through better health outcomes, but also educational outcomes as well – because it’s obvious that if you lack the energy to concentrate, you’re not going to achieve anything like your full potential in education, which affects the course of the rest of your life.
So that’s why I’m so interested in this, and that’s why I see school kitchen staff as heroes and heroines.
They might not feel that way when a kid’s grumbling about their veggies, or when they’re cleaning down at the end of lunch, but the difference they can and do make to a child’s life is really significant.
And that’s why I’m always happy to speak to people in the catering business, as I’d doing today.
I’ve been asked to speak to you about the School Food Plan.
Now, if I’d have been speaking to you a year or so ago, when the School Food Plan process was announced, I think my speech today would have been very different.
I spent the early part of last year campaigning – alongside LACA and many others - against a number of the Government’s decisions up to that point.
Their decision to effectively abolish school food standards by saying that an ever-growing number of schools would be exempt was certainly the main one, but it wasn’t the only one.
Up to that point they’d effectively gone back on Labour’s plans to make practical and healthy cooking a key part of the Key Stage 3 curriculum.
They’d also cancelled our extension of free school meals to children in working poor households.
Healthy Schools wasn’t on the agenda any more…
…the School Food Trust was being hived off and undermined…
…the School Lunch Grant was effectively scrapped…
…and the extension of the universal free school meal pilots had been scrapped as well.
A litany of errors which were taking us backwards on their own.
But when combined with the dismantling of school sport partnerships as well, I think I was justified in arguing that the DfE were really threatening all the progress that was being made by schools and their partners – like caterers - on helping children to lead healthier lives now and in the future.
It wasn’t a priority – it seemed. Schools were about learning facts and figures, not how to lead a healthy life.
As a consequence I was coming to conferences like this criticising Michael Gove in the strongest terms possible.
And of course, a certain celebrity chef was going even further in the newspapers, which was helpful!
And I have to be honest and say I was very dubious when the School Food Plan was first announced.
People were rightly asking questions like who were these management consultants turned entrepreneurs?
What could they tell us that we didn’t already know?
And why them?
There were rumours about meeting on holiday in Marrakech.
But despite my initial scepticism Henry and John were keen to engage with me and listen to my ideas.
They also agreed to face a grilling from representatives of LACA and all the other organisations who attend the All Party Group.
I can tell you – that’s no walk in the park!
I’ve seen a 6 foot tall cage fighter get absolutely mauled by that audience, including by your former national Chair – but that’s a whole other story!
But to their credit, Henry and John listened – and none of us can say it hasn’t been an eventful year since then, can we?
I think it’s fair to say that we can sit here today very much happier with the direction of travel policy-wise than we might have been back then.
We might not have gone back to what we had before Gove, but we’re certainly in a much better position than we were.
Thanks to the School Food Plan we’ve had a number of U-turns, which are always good fun for Opposition MPs like me to point out.
But aside from the individual policies to come out of the School Food Plan, I think there’s also now a more general acquiescence from current Ministers (if not perhaps as much from Ofsted) towards the viewpoint that I’ve always held, which is that it is the role and responsibility of government to do whatever is within their power to tackle the poor diets and lifestyles that are contributing to both of these scandals, and that there is no better or more cost-effective medium through which we can do that than through our education system.
Children enter that system ready to learn, and I can’t think of many more important things we can teach them than how to live a healthy life and have a good relationship with food – including an awareness of where different foods come from and what the effects of different foods can be on their body.
As I said a few moments ago, we lost that vision in the first few years of this government, but we seem to have regained it now and that is due to the hard work and determination of John and Henry and the excellent School Food Plan, and I want to take this opportunity to once again thank them, the expert group they worked with as well as everyone who engaged with them to produce such a seminal plan that I look forward to seeing implemented over next few years.
On the specific policies that I think are most important: cooking is back on the curriculum right the way through to Key Stage 3, which is great.
I would hope within that we will see kitchen staff sharing their expertise with children, and actually showing them how to make the food they’ll be eating for dinner that day.
Certainly in the primary school context, I think that kind of holistic approach is both achievable, and really beneficial to children’s understanding of where food comes from.
School food standards – once they’ve been revised and decided upon – will apply to academies and free schools who sign funding arrangements after the date of publication of the Plan.
This is a really positive step, and it was a major surprise to me that John and Henry were able to convince Michael Gove to go for it given his previous stubbornness in the face of our relentless criticism.
Obviously what those standards will be is important, and I’m sure we’ll all be keeping an eye on progress in that regard.
I also remain concerned that there’ll be around 3,000 schools operating outside of those standards.
Hopefully some will adopt them voluntarily, but I do remain of the opinion that Government should force them if they don’t – not least for the consistency issue when it comes to procurement.
We’re also going to have independent bodies monitoring the quality of school meals and helping to drive take-up.
Quite how Michael Gove squared that with the fact that he had effectively disbanded the School Food Trust I’m not sure…
We’re going to have ‘flagship boroughs’ that are going to demonstrate the benefits of improving school food standards.
Of course, we had Greenwich in 2008 which did that, but this is nonetheless a forward step, and does include a focus on things like breakfast clubs and growing food as well as what’s on the plate at lunchtime.
Speaking of breakfast clubs, we’re going to have more of those, too, with a specific pot of funding to help schools set them up.
Again, the number has tailed off over the last three years because the Extended Schools Grant for wraparound activities was effectively abolished – when I did an FOI to every local authority last year more than a third said they’d seen closures.
But if we can arrest that decline and even get more breakfast clubs than we had before, then I will certainly be the first to congratulate Michael Gove.
I also welcomed that Public Health England will encourage local Health and Wellbeing Boards to promote healthy eating policies in schools – particularly as I’ve had very little luck getting my own local Board to make it a priority.
And of course, probably the biggest surprise I had from the Leon guys was that the Secretary of State had signed off on something I had campaigned for for over 6/7 years, and that they had actually got a recommendation into the Plan to roll out universal free school meals.
I knew fairly early on that they were getting more and more convinced that that would be a good thing to do – because I don’t think they were at first – but I was sure that the DfE would convince them not to put it in the Plan as a recommendation.
That they did put it in I think says a lot about not just them, but also the really passionate advocacy of the whole plethora of individuals and organisations they met and spoke to for this particular policy, I’m sure many LACA members included.
But then to hear that the Lib Dems, who had strongly criticised Labour local authorities who were doing this already, had taken up the idea and were going to roll out universal entitlement for Key Stage 1, was incredible.
And what it showed me was that the strength of their argument was so strong that it convinced Nick Clegg and Michael Gove to champion it – and that’s quite an achievement – and one I never would have believed possible a year ago.
Obviously we’ll wait and see next week in the Autumn Statement where the money’s going to come from, but I think this is a really positive step forward for children, schools and, of course, caterers!
As you know, the report also contains a number of other actions, including on engaging with headteachers, which I’ve been asked to say a few words about in this speech.
As you will know, heads can either be the biggest champion of improving school food and adopting the whole school approach to health and nutrition, or they can be the biggest barriers.
That’s not to say they want to be a barrier.
As the School Food Plan found, many lack the knowledge of the importance of doing so, or how to do it.
And let’s not forget of course about the pressure that they’re under.
They’ve got budgets to balance which in many cases are causing real headaches, particularly as local authorities are having to cut back on the support they can provide.
Their perceived success or failure as an individual relies almost entirely on the performance of the outgoing class in standardised tests – whether that’s Year 6 or Year 11.
And of course, you’re also only ever as good as your last Ofsted inspection says you were, so the almost constant fear that some heads live in of that phone call on a Friday afternoon are well-founded.
So it’s understandable that, if they haven’t been adequately convinced of the important contribution good school food policies can make in tackling all of those problems, they will be less likely to see this as a priority area.
Hopefully the School Food Plan might have convinced a few more of them.
If it doesn’t, the revised Ofsted criteria may well do.
And hopefully the National College for Teaching and Leadership including school nutrition in their training programmes will help as well with the new generation of heads coming through.
But many of them will still need help getting there.
And when they do get there, they’re likely to appreciate all the help they can get to implement the ideas they have.
Who better to provide them with that help than the people who know most about food?
So, if you don’t think they’re aware of the School Food Plan – make them aware.
If you have suggestions about how things could be done better in the school, make them – although this kind of suggestion is always likely to be better received if it doesn’t cost any more money!
If you can provide things like after school cookery classes on a cost neutral basis for the school, offer them.
As you’ll know, the School Food Plan includes a checklist for heads with some other really common sense measures to turn around the culture in their school.
There’s a lot in there that caterers can play the lead role in delivering for them, such as:
•School food tasting sessions for parents and grandparents;
•Varying menus and having themed events;
•Free meal promotions like you did for National School Meals Week;
•Using seasonal and local food, and making sure the children know the provenance of it;
•Cooks attending parents evening, and;
•Getting children preparing and serving the food.
I’m sure many of you do all or some of those already in some of your schools.
The School Food Plan is right that leadership from the head is the most important factor in creating a great food culture.
But not every head is going to get there of their own accord.
So again anything you can do to inspire them to show that leadership, please do it!
I know that school caterers and LACA have been a leading voice and advocate for more progressive school food policies over the last few years.
Those here today, and your colleagues across the country, know better than most the importance of school meals in improving the health and educational attainment of the children who receive them – particularly for those children for whom their school meal might be their only hot, nutritious meal of the day.
You know better than most that quality food and quality education on food and nutrition are the blocks on which we can build a healthier future for our children.
And you know better than most how that goal can be achieved.
Your collective voice, experience and wisdom have helped shape this School Food Plan, and of course the policies that went before it under the previous government.
But perhaps even more importantly than that, you are literally the front line of the fight to tackle the health problems posed by poor diets and lifestyles, and have been instrumental in delivering the programmes you have helped design.
I know it hasn’t always been easy.
I know that the mere mention of Jamie Oliver can turn the air blue in some kitchens!
But I also know that school caterers have much more commitment, and arguably much more real power, to improve food culture in our schools than most people in Westminster or Whitehall do.
That definitely includes me, although I will keep plugging away.
Governments come and go, but schools will always need caterers.
The School Food Plan might just recommend doing a lot of things you’ve already been doing, but that in itself is positive.
The success or failure of the Plan in terms of meeting the ambitions it sets out will largely depend on you using the momentum and the renewed focus on school food culture it has generated to bring about the change needed in the schools you serve.
Headteachers might be the leaders, but all leaders can be influenced.
Let’s face it, if Michael Gove can be convinced to sign off on the School Food Plan, it shouldn’t be beyond your means to convince headteachers to implement it.
Good luck, and thank you for all that you do every day for our children.