LACA London and SE Regional Conference Speech - 21.10.2015
I was delighted when I was invited to speak to you this morning by your Regional Chair, Roger Denton. I have a lot of time for the amazing work that Roger and the rest of LACA does and always enjoy coming to speak to you all when asked.
For many years now, I have had a wonderful relationship with LACA where we have campaigned on our shared vision of seeing every child sitting down at lunchtime to a hot and healthy school meal.
I have also championed the cause of catering staff and the dedication they show to their work despite sometimes being under-appreciated and over-looked when those of us in Westminster talk about the issue of school food.
That's why last year I was delighted when Mr Speaker granted my request for LACA to bring in four school cooks to shadow our chefs in Parliament for a day, cooking and serving food to many of the great and good of the political world.
Now for those of you who don't know much about me and why I am here speaking to you about school food, what I can tell you is that I am evangelical about universal free school meals in order that all kids can have the benefits that a hot and healthy school meal brings to a child's educational attainment, wellbeing, behaviour and as research is proving, a child's long-term health. Yet, I know I will be preaching to the converted on all of that here today.
Sadly, all too many of my Parliamentary colleagues do not think the same. That is why I set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food in the last Parliament to raise awareness of the benefits of a decent school meal on a child’s life chances and to campaign to improve not only the provision but also the reach with this in mind. It is in that capacity that I am speaking to you today.
I am certainly not the first politician, or hopefully the last, that will hold the mantle and champion food in our schools on the green benches of the Commons.
The first politician to ever raise school food in Parliament was back in 1906 when the Labour Member of Parliament for Bradford West, Fred Jowlett, used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to launch a campaign for school meals, that is not just that they should be free but that there should be a provision at school.
This was after his work on Bradford’s School Board where he witnessed malnourished children falling behind their peers and he argued in his speech that with the introduction of compulsory education, it was down to the Government to provide children with the food necessary to sustain them throughout the day.
Jowlett’s noble intervention then led to the passing of the Provision of School Meals Act in 1906, which established a national strategy for local authorities to provide school meals for the very first time.
I recommend you all read this debate. It is hard to believe it was 1906, not 2015, as the same arguments for and against are rehearsed and debated. It is sad really that in some ways the case has still not been fully won over 100 years later.
School Food Plan
That's not to say that we haven't made some great strides in the last century, and especially in the last decade. You will all remember twizzlergate - we like the odd "gate", us politicians - and the crusade at that point led by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to shine a light on the food served in our schools.
I remember when visiting one of my local schools when I was first elected to Parliament ten years ago, and watching as those children on free school meals were segregated from their peers. Whilst those on packed lunches were sat in rows on PE benches facing each other’s backs with their little packed lunchbox on their lap.
This is in no way a criticism of lunch-based staff, far from it. The problem we faced ten years ago was the lack of support for lunchtime staff to create a positive and enriching lunch experience for children that you all knew was beneficial to a child’s life.
And since the School Food Plan was introduced, the idea of the whole school approach to food has allowed kitchen staff the ability to transform their dining halls and offer an enriching lunchtime experience.
But as a new MP all those years ago after that shocking school visit which was followed by a delegation to Sweden where I saw how it could be, I went back to Parliament and worked my socks off and lobbied and lobbied Ed Balls, the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (remember those days), to introduce universal free school meals.
This led to the pilots in Durham and Newham which were introduced in 2009 and subsequently made it into Labour’s 2010 manifesto, as a fully-costed plan to step-by-step roll-out universal free school meals across local authorities in England.
But as elections go, in 2010 (as in 2015), we found ourselves on the wrong side of the Chamber and watched - though not passively, I must add - as Michael Gove dismantled much of the good work that Labour had achieved.
From the nutritional-based standards, to the extension of universal free school meal pilots being scrapped, to the removal of healthy, practical cooking from the school curriculum.
It seemed like we were going back to the days of Fred Jowlett where children were at risk of not receiving a decent meal at lunchtime. Nevertheless, along came two management consultants turned food entrepreneurs - who I like to call the Ant and Dec of the school food world - John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby.
Now like many of you hear today it has to be said, I was initially sceptical about what these two hot-shot businessmen were going to say about school food that was different to what we - the converted - had argued for years.
However, I gave them a chance as – as we all did and engaged and worked with them.
And in 2013, they authored an excellent report into the state of food in our schools - The School Food Plan. Now I know many of you will have come across it, and read it no doubt, and there are many lines that jump out of it for me, but there are three lines from the Plan that stand out in particular…
• 57% of children were not eating school lunches at all …
• Only 2% of packed lunches met nutritional standards of hot dinners …
• and studies had shown that hunger affects concentration and well-nourished children fared better at school …
Remember, Fred Jowlett’s speech from 1906. It doesn't seem to have changed at all!
Still the School Food Plan, driven by the energetic charisma of John and Henry, went on to revolutionise school food with recommendations that would have made Fred Jowlett proud.
The most significant of those recommendations, Number 17 - which to this day I will never understand how they got Michael Gove to agree too - was universal free school meals for primary-school children.
The inclusion of this recommendation was down to the concerted efforts of campaigners, caterers and lunchtime staff who understand the benefits of providing a child with a decent meal, most importantly for free, so the stigma around free school meals is removed. As John and Henry also found in their research that the very children who benefitted the most when school meals went universal were the very ones who were already getting them for free.
After universal free school meals were announced (thanks to a Nick Clegg trade-off against the married-couples' tax allowance) as Government policy in the autumn of 2013 though only for infant-aged children, it has become one of the most important policy interventions in a child’s life due to the determination and commitment by school catering staff – like yourselves – to provide children with the best food and lunchtime experience possible.
And I thank you for that.
So, when at long last universal infant free school meals were announced, was it job done for the APPG?
It certainly wasn’t.
There was still plenty of work for us to do, such as supporting the implementation of all the recommendations made in the School Food Plan, some of which the APPG is doing currently and I have been asked to talk to you today about some of that work.
Child holiday hunger
One important area is what happens to those children who rely upon their term-time free school meal as the only source of nutrition in the day, during the long school holidays – known as child holiday hunger.
Now there are some who think when the school gates lock for the school holidays, that it is none of our business about how a child eats, or doesn’t in some cases, when they are at home.
Children are in school for just 190 days of the year and the rest, a total of 170 days is down to their parents totally. Some may say this is right and how it should be. Some may point to increases in food bank use which has grown worryingly and shoots up further still during school holidays. Others, especially teachers, and some of you in this room, will notice how thin and unhealthy some kids look after a long holiday.
I say therefore, this shows that we need to be doing something about holiday hunger, as it exists, and we can’t ignore it any longer! Kids in 21st Century Britain are going hungry for sustained periods and it’s not acceptable.
A report by Kellogg's published in the summer, found that:
- 39 per cent of teachers said pupils in their schools do not get enough food over the school holidays
- and a third of parents had skipped a meal so that their kids could eat during the school holidays.
Pair this with the huge increase in the use of food banks over the summer holidays as I’ve already mentioned, where in London and the South-East, the Trussell Trust saw a 402% increase in children using food banks in 2014-15 compared to 2011-12. It is clear that this is an issue we can ignore no longer.
If children are to succeed in life then we cannot, and should not, allow all the hard-work that goes in to improving the life chances of these children during term-time reversed over the school holidays because some people say it’s none of our business.
That is why the APPG has been focused on holiday hunger for a few years now, writing a position paper in 2013 and also establishing an expert panel led by Lindsay Graham – which includes representatives from LACA – to advise Parliamentarians on the APPG, and in turn Government, on how best we can address child holiday hunger.
The expert panel has gone from strength to strength and earlier this year, they held their first conference in Sheffield where they launched the Filling the Holiday Gap guidelines. This voluntary guidance is there for all those organisations, local authorities and schools who wish to provide food during holiday provisions, such as summer camps, holiday clubs and educational fun days, to use as a guide on how to make it possible to provide healthy and nutritious food for such provisions.
And now the expert panel are looking into how we can bring together all this positive work achieved across the country to build a coherent response to show how best the Government can address holiday hunger.
Another area that the APPG has been working tirelessly on is the role that Ofsted must play in the assessment of food in our schools, as set out in the School Food Plan.
Now, I know that many people have a wary relationship with Ofsted but if we are to develop the whole-school approach to food that I mentioned earlier, alongside the wider reforms called for in the School Food Plan, then it is important that Ofsted takes a major role in seeing this become a reality.
Therefore a child’s wellbeing, health and healthy eating need a much more prominent place within Ofsted inspections.
However, when Ofsted published their consultation to develop their new Common Inspection Framework earlier this year, they gave only a fleeting reference to school food.
To quote Ofsted on their inspection of school food, they were looking for children to have:
“knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy, including through exercising and healthy eating”
That was it!
For the APPG this was nowhere near what we thought was the right way to inspect and support the improvement of food in our schools, feeling it focused more on curriculum rather than the whole-school’s approach to food, with no imperative on the Head Teacher to be judged on this measure, as recommend by the School Food Plan. Therefore, we decided to encourage as many of our stakeholders as possible to submit their own responses to the consultation.
In light of this, Ofsted finally accepted that they would improve the training for inspectors, in co-operation with the Office of the School Food Plan, to ensure healthy eating and food in schools is properly inspected.
One of the APPG’s more recent campaigns, which came to our attention in recent weeks, is the Department for Education’s short-sighted removal of a food-based A-level in the national curriculum. The high-quality qualifications needed to work with food are integral to having a highly-skilled workforce, to help encourage the next Michelin-star chefs, nutritionists and, of course, the next school cooks.
Yet to achieve this there needs to be a clear pathway that allows for these practical skills to be developed at every stage of a child’s education, and for these skills to be valued and seen as valuable for a future career.
Important reforms have already been made to improve the food curriculum in our schools, with food education now compulsory until age 14, children now must know how to make five family meals before leaving school, and a new Food and Nutrition GCSE on offer from next September giving those pupils who want to pursue a career in food the scientific underpinning and practical cooking techniques needed to succeed.
That is why it is shocking to see that a food-based A-level will not be offered, seriously effecting the pipeline of new chefs, food teachers and school cooks.
This is because the Government has argued that pupils can gain the necessary skills and understanding of food and nutrition from the science subjects that are on offer in post-16 education, yet this goes against the need for practical cooking skills.
It is all very well knowing the science about how to make a soufflé but I doubt you will get a job in a French restaurant if you’ve never actually made one!
What is needed is a combination of both science theory and cooking techniques. As Keith Proudlove, a Food Technology Consultant at the British Council, has said: I quote: “the person who does science with a food qualification, they’re worth their weight in gold because they’ve got the knowledge of food, the handling of food, as well as the scientific underpinning.” End quote.
If we are to excel as a country with top chefs showcasing the culinary skills of the UK, to school cooks providing the food that will fuel our children’s bodies and minds, then we must offer a rigorous food-based A-level, alongside high-quality vocational qualifications in post-16 education, so that everyone from all backgrounds and abilities can shape the food we eat in the future.
Campaign to keep UIFSM
Finally the last, and possibly the one closest to a lot of our hearts, is the campaign currently underway to save universal infant free school meals (UIFSM).
I know it was a huge task that many people, some in this room, never thought you would be ready for in time. Yet when it came to it, everyone stepped up to the plate – teachers, caterers and lunchtime staff – all with the excellent support of the LACA helpline to make sure that on the first day of term in September 2014 no infant child went without their free school meal.
Despite the amazing work seen over the last year, many of you will have seen in the press over the past few weeks that the future of the policy is in jeopardy as Nicky Morgan looks at the books and decides what she must cut from the Department for Education’s budget to meet Osborne’s strict austerity measures.
Everyone here will agree, as I said earlier, that universal infant free school meals is an important policy that addresses health and educational inequalities and provides children with the fuel to work hard at school laying the groundworks to succeed in later life.
Though David Cameron has had warm words to say on universal free school meals in recent weeks, he and his Government have yet to explicitly say that this policy will be protected from the cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review in November. Going completely against Cameron’s self-described ‘all-out assault on poverty’, as well as his anti-obesity strategy.
Just as at the beginning of the last Parliament, the future of school food is on the chopping block, we all have to rally together. Again, Parliamentarians, charities, experts, caterers and lunchtime staff now have to put pressure on the Government to make sure that they literally do not take food out of the mouths of children.
We follow in a long line of people who have championed the case for better food provision for children in schools, from Jowlett, to Jamie, to John and Henry, to all of us here today and that is why we must never give up the fight.
Instead of sitting back and accepting what we are given, we need to be sticking together and saying enough is enough.
Out of everyone who campaigns on free school meals, it is all of you here today who work at the coalface who really understand the benefits this policy can have on a child’s health, their education and their future; despite the initial groans from kids as they eat their veggies or the initial moans from doubting parents about what little Johnny will or will not eat.
It is you who knows how important it is to provide a good-quality school meal to all kids regardless of background. Why do we means test something that is so vital to our very survival as humans? It is the only thing in a child’s whole school life that we do. Now more than ever the campaign needs your voices to be heard.
Currently, there is a petition on the Government’s website which has reached over 39, 590 and has received a response from the Government – which is lukewarm to say the least.
If this petition reaches 100,000 signatures then a debate will be called in Parliament where MPs can press the Government to make it absolutely clear if they are to keep this policy, or not.
There is still a long way to go but that’s why after this conference, I urge you to go home and speak to your friends, your family, your colleagues and the parents at your school and ask them to sign the petition.
Explain to them about the amazing work you have done to transform the food served in schools. Even invite parents into the school and sit them down, showing them exactly what is at stake for their kids and get them to sign the petition then go away and tweet and Facebook their friends as well.
Also, write to your local Member of Parliament, especially if they are a Conservative, telling them why they should support universal infant free school meals and invite them to your school to experience first-hand the work you have all achieved to see this policy work – a politician can never say no to a free lunch or a great photo opportunity. More importantly get the kids themselves, the 5 – 7 year olds especially, to write to the Prime Minister to David Cameron himself asking him not to scrap their lovely school meals.
You may not see yourselves as campaigners, yet it is people like all of you here today who need to lend your voices to our shared cause.
It is a battle that we sadly need to return to periodically but let’s face it, it is one that we know we can win if we all rally together and make our voices heard.
I hope that you will all join us in this fight. So that what Fred Jowlett started 109 years ago, a basic belief that children cannot learn and thrive if they are hungry and malnourished, we finish and ensure that is never a reality for any child in what is, let’s be frank, one of the richest countries in the world – whatever Osborne would have us believe.
Let’s make sure this happens at long last, under our watch!