The Great British Bake Off: Food education needs a drastic overhaul

Children need to learn about nutrition, not just cupcakes


Food is central to our lives, but as outlined in a previous blog post, the UK does not have coordinated food policies – rather they are piecemeal and reactive. This is particularly evident in how we teach cooking in schools.

In the week that students get their GCSE results, and coinciding withe The Great British Bake Off, Left Foot Forward looks at how we teach cooking skills at school, and whether recent curriculum changes add up.

We learn many of our cooking skills at home, largely from other family members. But over the last 40 years, the time that we spend cooking every day has halved, while our consumption of pre-prepared food has increased dramatically.

While men cook more than ever, it is usually mothers who make the daily family meals, as cooking remains a highly gendered practice. In almost all families it is girls rather than boys who spend time in the kitchen with their mothers.

Experts recognise the role of parents in teaching cooking skills, but argue that the task of schools is complementary and compensatory: to teach boys and those children who do not get the opportunity to cook at home.

Teaching has changed dramatically in recent years. From the mid-19th century until the 1970s, home economics was a subject that was almost always taught to girls, while boys did woodwork and metalwork. It tended to be a low status subject from which boys were barred and bright girls were discouraged from studying.

Throughout these 100 or so years, there was an on-going debate about the aims of home economics: whether to equip women in domestic skills, or to take a vocational route and prepare working class women for employment as servants or in the growing catering industry.

The teaching of home economics changed dramatically from the late 1970s. It was the decade that gave us the ‘curriculum development movement’ where the best teachers went back to universities and modernised the school curriculum. It was also a time of greater gender equality.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it illegal to have a different curriculum for boys and girls. Later, in the Thatcher years, the government decided that the country needed food technologists to work in factories and a new subject was born: food technology, taught to all 11-14 year olds as part of a rotation of subjects within design and technology departments.

Food technology has been on the English National Curriculum for 5-14 year olds since the Education Reform Act 1988 was implemented. But most primary schools lack facilities suitable for teaching cooking to large classes, so for most young children, food technology means cupcakes.

In secondary schools food technology is a GCSE and A-Level. For 11-14 year olds food technology is usually about two hours of teaching every week in rotation with other design and technology subjects.

But a lack of facilities meant that about 15 per cent of secondary-aged children received no cooking lessons until recently. Concern about obesity led the last Labour Government to make it compulsory for children to receive 38 hours of food technology during their first three years of secondary education. These changes were followed by curriculum reform in 2013.

After extensive lobbying, including from celebrity chefs, cooking became compulsory for those aged 5-14 in all maintained schools in England. Children are now expected to cook a variety of predominantly savoury dishes using a range of cooking techniques’, though little further detail is given.

Making cooking compulsory is welcome, but this obligation does not apply to Northern Ireland and Wales. Nor does it apply to over 22 per cent of schools in England that are academies or free schools exempt from the National Curriculum. As food technology is not part of the English Baccalaureate, there also are concerns that its status is becoming increasingly marginalised.  

Additionally, poorer children often miss out on cooking – because they have to buy their own ingredients. They may absent themselves on cooking days and research shows that when given a choice, they tend to pick subjects that are seen as cheaper to study.

The standard of cookery education in schools is highly variable. In the best schools, teaching is brilliant and schools have used this opportunity to involve parents and improve nutrition for the whole family. But in too many schools, food technology means a few hours of uninspiring lessons that are soon forgotten.

If the government is to improve cooking in schools, it needs to do much better. More detail is needed on minimum standards expected of schools, following the example of Scotland. As more schools move to become academies, National Curriculum obligations need to apply to all children.

We need teacher training, particularly in primary schools, as well better facilities. Schools should provide common store cupboard ingredients such as eggs and flour, so children from poorer families do not miss out.

Cooking needs to be seen as a high status, core subject to enjoy. Above all, government policy must be coherent and followed through, not just a sound-bite intervention in response to the likes of Mary Berry.  

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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