With an upcoming election, conversation at the EDUcatering Forum naturally turned to politics. But the key message was that no matter how small we are, if we make plenty of noise the leaders will hear us, writes Morag Wilson.
When the EDUcatering Forum was planned for 3rd May nobody knew that there would be an election happening in five weeks’ time. The theme of the conference was about inspiring leadership teams to focus on school meals and never was this more important than now.
Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) had been guaranteed for the duration of this parliament. With the election on 8th June does this mean UIFSM is no longer protected? Is the school catering industry yet again going to have to fight to keep the policy and keep people in jobs, let alone continue to feed thousands of young children?
If you thought it was a difficult job to convince the head teacher that school meals are important, it’s going to be an even greater task to convince the politicians.
“Size doesn’t matter,” said Jane Renton, editorial director of EDUcating Magazine, in her opening remarks of the EDUcatering Forum in London. “No matter our size, we need to make noise ahead of the election so that UIFSM doesn’t go away.”
Speculation around the election did enter some of the thoughts of our speakers – and one speaker, Orla Huguenoit of Public Health England, had to cancel her appearance due to parliamentary rules of purdah ahead of the election – although much of the debate at the Forum was around other forms of leadership that the industry can influence.
“Leadership is about doing the right thing, it’s about getting buy-in,” said Jane.
One person who has certainly bought into school meals and food education is Jason O’Rourke, head teacher at Washingborough Academy in Lincolnshire and EDUcatering Excellence Award winner. For Jason, he didn’t become interested in food education because of childhood obesity as some head teachers might.
“I went into food education because it is a catalyst to get children learning,” he said.
At Washingborough, food is used throughout the curriculum. Maths equations sink in when pupils learn how to scale up or down a recipe, while they learn about geography and history when being taught about where certain foods come from.
While Jason is on board to the idea of cross-curricula links with food, he recognised that childhood obesity is a good place to start in convincing other head teachers to do more for their pupils.
The statistics around childhood obesity – that one in five come to school overweight or obese, rising to one in three by the time they leave primary school – are well known. Yet little is being done to rectify the situation. Five years ago there were no children under 16 who had type 2 diabetes yet today there are over 500. Last year 26,000 children go to hospital for treatment to rotting teeth.
“Schools can make a massive difference to childhood obesity,” said Jason.
But, head teachers are forced to focus on the aspects that will get the attention of Ofsted – and the positive ratings. Could this be about to change?
The Healthy Schools Rating Scheme outlined in the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan would be inspected by Ofsted and Jason suggested that this could finally make heads take action. “If you’re judged on it, as a head teacher you will do it,” he said.
Of course, the School Food Plan did achieve a landmark step with Ofsted that the body would “consider behaviour and culture in the dining hall and the way a school promotes healthy lifestyles”. But Jason – and others – admitted that this never gets checked.
But it is up to the school food industry to get this action of the School Food Plan – as well as the other 16 – implemented and communicated to head teachers, governors, Ofsted and the government.
Stephanie Wood, founder of School Food Matters and a member of the School Food Plan Alliance, reminded delegates at the EDUcatering Forum that governors are responsible for ensuring that food standards are adhered to, so schools shouldn’t be ignoring them even if there is no official inspection.
She reminded the audience that the School Food Plan is here to stay and that anyone can download the many resources it provides.
“Lots of great things have happened since the School Food Plan was published but we know that we’re not done,” she said. For example, not all schools are providing cookery lessons despite it being on the national curriculum, because they don’t have staff with the skills to deliver it. A report into the extent of this problem is currently being carried out by the Jamie Oliver Foundation and other organisations.
The Alliance is a ‘guardian’ of the Plan’s 17 actions and has a good relationship with the Department for Education and schools minister Ed Timpson. But the election could change things.
“We need to speak really loudly to keep UIFSM, whatever your views on it may be,” said Stephanie. “We need to keep what we have first before we then talk about fairer funding or expanding the policy. We need to make the most of this election. The Alliance’s organisations are all campaigners and I believe the more noise we make the better.”
Caterers can keep up to date with the Alliance by signing up to the newsletter at schoolfoodplanalliancenewsletter.co.uk.
One thing that will certainly come up in election campaigns will be childhood obesity and Dr Rosalind Miller, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), provided an update on the situation in the UK. She called the Childhood Obesity Plan the “start of the conversation but not the final word”.
Some of the points in the plan are on track, such as the sugar tax, while others like the Healthy Schools Rating Scheme might not quite make the September 2017 deadline and the BNFwants to see more training in nutrition for all teachers, as well as refresh the knowledge of Ofsted in food and nutrition before inspecting on it, said Rosalind.
The foundation is also providing online training courses to improve the knowledge and skills of caterers, early years settings and food teachers – its professional development programme currently as 1,700 teachers on board.
Tasty and nutritious food was the key message from Chartwells, who gave a cookery demonstration with tasters of their new menus, just before lunch. Sandra Kerton, business development director and Meg Longworth, head of nutrition, explained the idea behind Global Adventures, as well as the company’s Food Super Heroes for the primary sector, while Andrew Walker and his team prepared dishes live on stage.
The Food Super Heroes were created following research with primary pupils that better communication was needed to encourage them to take a healthy meal, that food needed to be more fun and be brought to life. Hydra – one of the eight Food Super Heroes – made a special appearance at the Forum.
The Creative Kitchen has also been a key part of this. Three Creative Kitchens have now been set up, inviting pupils to learn more about food and cooking from the Chartwells team, using their senses and descriptive words and tying in with the curriculum. One of the dishes the pupils make in the workshops is a Vietnamese spring roll, which delegates got to try.
It forms part of Global Adventures, the new secondary school menu which had a global premier at the EDUcatering Forum and will now be rolled out to 300 schools.
“It’s not just about the food but also good presentation and a food experience,” said Sandra.
Andrew and the team made a beef barbacoa using a shin of British beef on a tomato rice, which can be served in a wrap to go or with sides to offer pupils flexibility and choice. The salad offered alongside had cucumber and carrot – helping to bring costs down – but also green papaya, mango and mooli, making them exotic and incredibly colourful.
Following lunch, when we had eaten our fill, Rachel Warwick, founder of the charity MakeLunch, brought delegates back down to earth with her story about holiday hunger, and the story of a mother and her daughter struggling to survive on limited funds. Rachel, a former teacher, used to celebrate having six weeks’ holiday in the summer and it never occurred to her until she watched a documentary about holiday hunger that almost three million children in England go hungry in the holidays when they can’t have their free school meal.
She went about offering holiday provision and in her first year provided 300 meals from three locations. Today, MakeLunch has a network of 80 locations and has served 50,000 meals to date. However, she said, “if we serve 50,000 meals a day that would still only reach 4% of the children who need it”.
More needs to be done, and Rachel cited research by Northumbria University (see page 42) that shows the academic benefit of holiday provision, which could help to persuade the government to do more to tackle the issue.
The majority of holiday clubs are run by volunteers in church halls and community centres, but Rachel urged caterers to open up dialogue with schools, local authorities and companies to open a club in their area or find out who can.
“You can offer support with finance, releasing your staff for the day, or providing food,” she said. “When you put catering contracts out to tender, put holiday provision into the contract.”
This idea resonated particularly with some members of the audience who could finally see how it could be possible for more schools to offer holiday provision for the most in need, and Rachel announced at the EDUcatering Forum a new training package tailored for schools to help them deliver holiday provision (visit makelunch.org.uk).
Of course, providing an additional service when budgets are already being constrained is a challenge, but the industry is used to overcoming challenges. Vickie Hacking, principle advisor at the Association for Public Service Excellence (Apse) set out some of the impacts on catering from school budget cuts.
Local authority control of catering is diminishing as more schools seek to procure their own catering, noted Vickie. Local government and school budgets are falling in real terms and they need to find the funding locally.
However, local authorities are becoming more efficient in their catering overheads, she said. But competition remains the biggest challenge, with the private sector having a wealth of resources at their fingertips. Pensions are driving up the costs of tenders, sometimes by as much as 20%, she highlighted, while the cost of adult social care is putting further pressure on local authorities.
However, “local authorities are adapting in the face of budget cuts, because they have to,” she said. “They have embraced technology to improve productivity. They are being flexible with staff roles to combine services and councils are commercialising services and even winning new contracts. They are working with neighbouring local authorities to maximise procurement and economies of scale around small schools and accessing other funding streams.”
Local authorities are having to adapt but they are succeeding, despite these uncertain times.
Alongside budget cuts comes rising food costs, which is something that Rich Watts, senior Catering Mark manager at Food for Life Served Here, talked about at the Forum. He revealed findings of research the organisation has done with some of its award holders with the biggest spend, who have already noticed a hit with the price of fruit and vegetables, as well as oil, with slightly smaller rises in dairy, meat and fish.
“Something has got to give, whether it be a reduction in quality or increased costs to consumers,” he said.
Encouragingly, however, there have been fewer cost rises to local produce, where many award holders source their products. Caterers offered some tips to Food for Life and noted that the ethics of the scheme are helping with costs, such as cutting plate waste and planning seasonally and what’s available at the time, being flexible with menu items to avoid inflated ingredients and manage costs.
The Catering Mark has been rebranded to Food for Life Served Here because, Rich explained, parents just want to know that food is fresh, local and honest. They want to know that food is healthy, but “not have it preached to them”.
In September, Food for Life will be running their first consumer marketing campaign to parents on Facebook, allowing users access to a map where they can see if their child’s school is serving an awarded meal.
Closing the day was a Q&A session with Sally Shadrack, chair of LACA, who addressed the challenges the industry faces in engaging with leadership.
“How do we engage with academies and business managers? With our wonderful food and showing best practice,” she said. “But we’re up against it and there is a lack of engagement.”
The Healthy Schools Rating Scheme will work to the industry’s advantage, Sally believes, because head teachers want to be as good as each other and if their ratings are published then this will drive engagement. She also called governors “our secret weapons” in challenging head teachers, reemphasising Stephanie Wood’s point earlier in the day that governors do have an obligation to uphold the school food standards.
With an election looming, Sally took some solace in the fact that all three major political parties have had a role to play in school food at some point and have supported it. “LACA has written to the MPs writing the manifestos,” she said, urging them to consider school meals.
Sally also provided an update on the research LACA has commissioned into UIFSM and confirmed that surveys are being sent out online while case studies and interviews will be carried out this summer. The research is on track to be published early next year.
Sally closed the Forum on an air of optimism. That the industry is facing huge challenges: some that lay in the near future like food prices and others that are more imminent such as the election. But no matter what, the school meals industry will work together to create a big noise to turn the heads of leaders locally and nationally.