By Maurice Smith
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in England
Chips, Turkey Twizzlers and fizzy pop. School meals have been much maligned over the past year, but are they really that bad?
Maurice Smith's inspectors have compiled two reports on food
Today the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) publishes a small-scale report examining the current state of food on offer in England's primary and secondary schools.
Healthy eating in schools is a precursor to a major survey of food in schools to be carried out in 2006-07. We have also published the results of an opinion poll, in which we asked a representative sample of parents for their views on school meals.
Ofsted inspectors, accompanied by nutritionists appointed by the Food Standards Agency, looked at recent school inspection reports and visited primary and secondary schools in three local authorities.
They found that the standard of school meals has improved in a minority of schools, with primary schools making more rapid progress than secondary schools.
Under the right conditions school meals provide the opportunity to encourage pupils to eat more fruit and vegetables and develop a taste for food which is low in salt, sugar and fat.
However, while primary pupils were using the skills they had learned in the classroom to make informed choices about healthier meals, secondary students were not always applying their knowledge when selecting a meal.
The quality of the environment in which pupils ate their lunch, and the advice available to help them make healthier choices, was good in most primary schools, but less so in secondary schools. There was evidence that students do not have enough time to eat, or to enjoy the social benefits of eating with others, in some secondary schools where the lunch break is too short.
There was evidence that students do not have enough time to eat
Most schools providing breakfast made sure that the food and drink available were consistent with an overall healthier diet. At break times, providing a daily piece of fruit for the youngest children had been well received but in some secondary schools students are still able to purchase food from vending machines that contain products high in salt and sugar.
A central plank of the government's new nutritional standards for schools, to be introduced in September, will be the "school food policy" which will require schools and parents to work together to decide what choices should be available at lunchtime and what should be included in packed lunches.
Ofsted found that although some schools had discussed this, few had begun consulting parents.
The report recommends that catering staff should have up-to-date factual information, support and training and that schools should work closely with catering managers to monitor and evaluate the quality of school meals and the approach to healthier eating.
It is also fundamental that parents reinforce the efforts made by teachers and lunch-time staff and ensure their children eat healthily. After all, children eat more meals at home than they do at school.
When it comes to parents' views about school meals, the results of Ofsted's opinion poll were very revealing and indicate that the "poor" quality of school meals in England might largely be a matter of perception rather than reality.
More than half of parents whose children eat school meals thought the quality of these meals is good or better, but this figure dropped to 19% when the same parents were asked for their opinion of the quality of school meals nationally.
Seven per cent of parents whose children have school meals think the quality is poor, rising to 18% when they are asked for their opinion of school meals nationally.
When asked whether their children's school offers healthy options at lunch time, 74% of parents said "yes" with 43% saying that their child regularly chooses a healthy option.
While these findings suggest that the intense media focus on poor practice in school canteens has contributed to a perception that the national picture is worse than it is, it is also true that there is plenty of room for improvement in school canteens.
The School Food Trust recently outlined their recommendations for new nutritional standards for schools, to be introduced in September, and sizable government investment should help to overcome remaining weaknesses in school meals provision.
The biggest challenge lies with getting teenagers to make good food choices.
I agree that the contents of vending machines and tuck shops need to be improved, but as long as there is a newsagent within walking distance of the school gates, sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks will always make it into the playground. Parental guidance and good education about nutrition will still have a major role to play.
Food technology is perhaps the most obvious way to teach young people about the variety and nutritional content of food in a practical and interesting way, and today Ofsted publishes Food technology in secondary schools - a two-year study of this area of the curriculum.
The subject was introduced into elementary schools in the late 19th century largely to prepare working-class girls for work in domestic service or to prepare them to keep house
The subject was introduced into elementary schools in the late 19th century largely to prepare working-class girls for work in domestic service or to prepare them to keep house and cook for their families.
The subject gradually developed into "home economics" during the 20th century and with the advent of the national curriculum in 1992, food technology emerged as part of the compulsory subject of design and technology (D&T).
Within D&T, food technology's emphasis is on pupils combining an understanding of the properties contained in food materials with practical experiences and knowledge of food processing in order to design and make food products taking into account commercial manufacturing.
In recent years, pupils, parents and head teachers have increasingly argued that too little time is spent learning to cook nutritious meals and too much time is devoted to written work - the value of which is unclear.
Our inspection findings confirm many of these concerns.
The organisation of the D&T curriculum, a shortage of specialist teachers, lack of funding for ingredients, and an increase in the size of groups for practical work all hinder the teaching of the subject.
Although inspectors did see examples of interesting and exciting work being done, particularly when schools use local chefs, general achievement across all aspects of food technology was rarely better than satisfactory.
Unlike many other subjects food technology relies on parental contributions to the cost of ingredients, and this obviously comes with problems.
Schools are keen to keep costs to a minimum and as a result Key Stage 3 projects can be limited to the cooking of cakes, buns and pizzas rather than healthier alternatives. This creates a problem insofar as lessons learned in food technology are not reflecting the lessons being taught about healthy eating.
There need to be consistent messages about healthy eating across all aspects of school life, not just at meal times.