Interview: The taste test

Interview: The taste test

When headteacher Jason O’Rourke came to Washingborough Academy the school had no kitchen. Today, it not only has a Gold Catering Mark, but pupils have their own kitchen too, writes Morag Wilson.

There are only a handful of headteachers who believe so much in the importance of food education that they study for a doctorate on food education and school leadership. In fact, Jason O’Rourke is the only one, in the UK at least. Headteacher of Washingborough Academy in Lincolnshire, a small rural primary school with 300 pupils aged three to 11, Jason has transformed food education here from something that was non-existent to all-encompassing, with children taking part in at least an hour of food education every week.

In 2009 when Jason arrived at the school there was no school meal service at all. Today, the school holds a Gold Food for Life Catering Mark – the only in-house catered school to hold one – and the vast grounds around the school are filled with allotments, fruit trees, beehives and even an orchard. Inside, pupils make use of their very own fully-equipped kitchen where they prepare a healthy snack to sell at break time. Food is interwoven in everything the children do here and is complemented with a healthy, nutritious and tasty lunch in the middle of the day. It is, in every sense of the word, an exemplar of the School Food Plan and Jason is the headteacher that many school caterers would dream of having.

“I’m interested in food and its potential to teach other knowledge such as maths and geography,” says Jason. Since taking on the challenge of transforming the lives of children through food education at Washingborough, greater attention has been placed on the issue of rising childhood obesity. “So now there’s a moral emphasis, not just a healthy one,” says Jason. “What are we in this job for? To make a difference. Is knowing what a verb is going to lengthen your lifespan? Yes, it’s important. But knowing how to keep yourself healthy means you aren’t going to be exposed to heart disease or diabetes.

“One in five children arrive at school overweight or obese and one in three leave overweight or obese. If those were my maths results, I’d be out of a job.”

Jason believes that primary school is the best place to form habits in children that will set them up for a healthy life and already he has data that supports this. Since implementing his whole school approach to food education and healthy eating, pupil body measurements have fallen to less than the national average over the last three years. “The children can also now talk about food, they’re interested in it and they know what’s good for them. They know how to cook and that’s a life skill,” he says.

There are a number of features at Washingborough that add up to a rounded food education for all pupils. Being rural, the school is lucky enough to have large grounds and every class in the school has its own bed for growing vegetables.

“When children have chosen what to grow and they’ve sown it, looked after it and harvested it, they want to taste it. If you get them to do that and taste these foods they realise it’s really nice,” says Jason.

The school also employs a gardener who is currently transforming a largely disused area of land into an allotment to specifically supply the kitchen with fresh produce. This isn’t just any gardener; he has a degree in forestry and agriculture and is teaching Jason and the school all about storing cultivated vegetables, utilising the land and he is even planning to tap into the school’s maple trees to supply homemade syrup.

In one part of the grounds is an orchard of 22 varieties of local, Lincolnshire apples, each tree sponsored by the local community. It’s so productive that the school didn’t need to buy any apples for the kitchen between September and December last year. There are wild cherries and other fruit trees scattered about, and a fruit cage for growing blackberries. Following a school exchange with China last year, one of the Chinese delegates returned to his inner-city school and built a vegetable garden based on what he had seen at Washingborough.

Even in the middle of the concrete playground there is growing going on, where last year pupils grew potatoes, and a pizza oven stands nearby where children make their own pizzas from scratch using produce from the land around them. Tucked away in the garden is a wormery and there are beehives – the latest addition to the school.

The children don’t just spend time outdoors gardening. Every day they walk along a route around the school grounds and the school is Sustrans Gold School Mark so pupils are encouraged to cycle or scoot to school and Key Stage 2 children have weekly mountain biking lessons using the school’s own fleet of bikes.

One of Jason’s first transformations when he arrived at the school was to create a children’s kitchen. It sits in the heart of the school and everything is at a child’s height, including the induction hob and work surfaces. Each week the Snack Shack sees a group of children create a healthy snack for the next day’s break time, where they control the ordering, charge for it and find out if it was profitable. They then take the recipe home. The kitchen is also used to teach children cookery so that by the time they leave primary school they are able to create 10 meals. It is then available for use by the community, including the local children’s centre for teaching parents and children family meals. The cookery lessons have even led to the creation of the school’s own ‘food channel’ on YouTube where pupils present their own cookery demonstrations.

After setting up the children’s kitchen, Jason then set about providing healthy meals for lunchtime to follow through on the ethos of healthy living. The only problem was there was no kitchen at the school and all meals were packed lunches. As with what happened in many schools, the kitchen was mothballed many years ago, but four years ago Washingborough was one of 18 schools selected by Lincolnshire County Council to receive a new kitchen. Only then the shortlist was reduced to 12, then to eight, and finally to six.

“We weren’t in that six,” says Jason. “So I threw my toys out of the pram.” He called on the local MP and others and managed to get back on the list. With a nominal £50,000 contribution from the school towards the cost of the build, Washingborough now has a large, fully-equipped kitchen and provides the meals for two other schools as well.
The council handed the service of the kitchen to the school and an outside caterer was brought in. But unfortunately they couldn’t quite meet the standards Jason was looking for.

“It started off OK with the provider but Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) came in and the spreadsheets started influencing what the food choices were,” explains Jason. He then chose to take the school meals service in-house.
“It was difficult because you have to take on staff and other responsibilities but it has gone from strength to strength. When we started, I said to the chef that I want to do it the best we can do it and I want the Gold Catering Mark.”
Holding a blank canvas the school was able to go out and find suppliers who met its high standards and it was rewarded in October 2016 when it won the treasured Gold award.
Of course, while Jason’s outlook is inspirational, children will always be children and that often means there are a lot of fussy eaters. Jason describes the incredible moment when one pupil tried peas for the first time, having never eaten a fresh vegetable in his life before. And he is battling with the issue of bringing unhealthy snacks into school, placing free fruit for younger pupils in attractive wicker baskets by the front door to encourage them to take one and negotiating with suppliers to provide a similar low-cost scheme for the older ones.

Jason is doing a lot of work around encouraging children to continue to take a school meal beyond UIFSM and into Year 3, looking at what the barrier might be to this.
“We do an option of just a baked potato so if you’re eating as a family in the evening, it doesn’t fill you up,” says Jason. “One of the things parents were saying was they didn’t want their children to have two big meals.”

School meals have also become much simpler. They had got “too fancy”, says Jason, which children and their parents weren’t buying into.

“They don’t want line-caught pollock in a fresh polenta crumb; they want fish and chips. How we do that fish and chips is sustainably caught and steamed, the chips are hassleback potatoes. But we call it fish and chips; parents don’t want restaurant talk.”

The work at Washingborough Academy is being recognised around the UK and beyond. The school is a case study for the Department of Health’s obesity plan and it is a pilot school for the Jamie Oliver Garden Project. Jason also won the EDUcatering Excellence School Food Plan Award in 2016. Much of this has been achieved by the work of Jason and the various partnerships he has formed. As part of his doctorate, Jason started researching food education in Europe and discovered the Sapere taste education programme, a teaching method on sensory learning with food used mostly in Scandinavian countries.

Following a visit to Norway, Jason invited Sapere to host a conference at Washingborough to train 20 people across the UK in the teaching method, which took place last month. It is hoped that by exposing children to various tastes at a young age they will have a healthier relationship with food.

Training and sharing knowledge is a key theme at Washingborough. The school recently welcomed members of the local Chinese and Vietnamese community to teach staff how to make won tons and to show chopstick etiquette, to pass on to the children.

“Our region isn’t very diverse and our school probably only has five or six children who are not native English speakers,” says Jason. “I’m very conscious of children being aware of other cultures so I’ve linked up with an organisation that works with black and Asian minority groups in Lincolnshire.

“The thing that crosses all boundaries is food, you can break down a lot of barriers with that, so we want to do something here that involves those groups so they can come and work with our children.”

On the day that I arrive another partnership is taking place, this time with Polish and Slovenian teachers. Called ‘Read, Write, Eat’, it is an exchange based around cooking and local cultural stories. When I ask the visitors what they think of British school meals, they are surprised by how small it is at just two courses, when having a large meal in the evening is viewed by them as being rather unhealthy.

Jason has the data to prove that good food education improves the health and diets of children and hopes that through various partnerships and the sharing of knowledge and his experiences, others can benefit too. But schools have to have a headteacher who gets is on board, he believes.

“The headteacher must get it and see this vision. If the head doesn’t get it then it’s not going to happen. Which is why food education needs to be part of teacher training,” Jason says.

His encouraging words provide a glimmer of hope for school caterers.

Jason will be speaking at the EDUcatering Forum on 3rd May in London. Visit educateringforum.com to book your place.