Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

Academy teaching table manners

By Jessica Creighton
BBC News

Pupils eating
Pupils serve each other and sit down to eat together

Who says family meal times are dead? One school in east London believes its family-style lunchtime is teaching pupils how to be more sociable and improve their behaviour.

The City Academy, Hackney, a £40m new school opened this term by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, encourages its pupils to sit together and socialise at lunchtimes.

Pupils sit in selected groups of six in the dining hall rather than their own friendship groups and each child has a responsibility.

It could be laying out the cutlery, dishing out the food or clearing away the plates.

Children cannot get out of helping by bringing in packed lunches or running off to the local kebab shop, as both are banned. There are also detentions for anyone trying to bring in sweets and crisps.

Students must eat one of the two hot meals on offer, accompanied by vegetables or salad.

Gone are the days of lumpy gravy and soggy, overcooked rice. Meat eaters can have "beef bourguignon served with buttery mashed potato". Or for vegetarians there is "mushroom stroganoff served with fluffy basmati rice".

Serving each other

Principal Mark Emmerson explains: "The principle behind the school dinners is around social dining and children taking responsibility for having a certain amount of things to do."

"They're not necessarily sitting beside friends and they have to interact in a social way, in a polite and courteous way... they have to serve each other, interact and discuss things in a sensible and civilised way."

Olivia Eastward-Gray, aged 11, said: "I like the way it's set out... at first I didn't know anyone on my table but over the weeks, you get to know them by dishing up the food."

Pupil Olivia Eastward-Gray, 11, explains how the system works.

But at a time when some children live on a diet of snacks and fizzy drinks, the choice of meals may not suit everybody's palates.

Fish pie, for example, caused a bit of a stir, proving to be so unpopular that the children complained to their school council.

Olivia said: "There's been a vote about fish pie, because not many people liked fish pie. So it's now been regulated to once every term."

But does this traditional approach to lunchtime actually work? "It has a massive impact on the levels the children are achieving, on the quality of work they're doing," Mr Emmerson said.

And this view is echoed by the School Food Trust which works to improve food in schools.

"We know from our research in schools that pupils who eat a good lunch in a pleasant environment are more focused in their lessons after lunch, so anything which improves the dining experience for children is to be welcomed," said a spokesperson.

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