Feeding children unhealthy food is not freedom
Nine-year-old Martha Payne’s school dinner blog got more attention than she expected, after Argyll and Bute council tried to stop her posting photos of her lunches. Over six million people have now read the blog, which rates her food in terms of healthiness, how much she enjoyed it and even the number of mouthfuls it took to eat it.
Since Labour introduced standards for school food, the quality, and healthiness of school food has shot up, as has uptake of school meals. Levels of fats, sugar and salt in school food have fallen; pupils are eating more fruit and vegetables – and I have seen (and eaten) for myself the results of the Food for Life Partnership’s great work with schools to help meet and exceed the standards.
Healthy school food is crucial not just for good long-term health but also, as education minister Lord Hill acknowledged this month, for ‘positive effects on behaviour and attainment.’ Studies have shown that pupils are more likely to be alert and focused on learning after a healthy lunch, and that healthy lunches can lead to fewer days off sick and better results.
But this government has made academies and free schools exempt from the standards. Recent evidence from the School Food Trust – motto: eat better, do better – shows that, while many academies are still voluntarily adhering to the standards, many are not. It found that ‘food in some academies is failing to meet national standards designed to keep school menus healthy’. As reported in the Guardian, nine in 10 academies were found to be selling junk food that is banned in maintained schools.
The government’s defence – effectively that the standards don’t matter because some maintained schools, which are bound by the standards, aren’t doing as well as they might – does not stack up. Maintained schools are required in law to adhere to the standards: pupils have a guarantee. This drives school behaviour. If the school does not adhere to them, it can be challenged and required to improve. Academies that choose not to provide healthy food cannot be held to account in this way.
It is right that academies have increased freedoms, to innovate around the curriculum, length of the school day and term, and so on.
But what is the evidence that giving schools freedom to provide unhealthy food would be anything other than a disaster?
It follows the same flawed logic as Michael Gove’s decision to ensure the quality of teaching in free schools by removing the requirement that the teachers be qualified.
There is growing support for the government to change its policy. This week Labour members in the Commons and in the Lords asked ministers to require academies and free schools to adhere to the standards. The Save our School Food Standards campaign – led by Jamie Oliver Children’s Food Campaign, Food for Life Partnership and the Local Authority Caterers Association – is growing in momentum and is supported by Sharon Hodgson, chair of the All Party Parliamentary School Food Group. Zac Goldsmith has an Early Day Motion, signed by 99 MPs at the time of writing, calling on the government to ‘require academies and free schools to adhere to the standards for school food’.
As the number of academies rises – already over a million pupils attend them – the government must think again, and stop denying pupils at academies the right to healthy food at school.
Catherine McDonald is cabinet member for health and adult social care in Southwark. For the past two years she was cabinet member for children’s services and brought in universal free healthy school meals for Southwark’s primary school pupils. She tweets @cath_mcdonald
academies, health, nutrition, school dinners