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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4 Responses to “The Great British Bake Off: Food education needs a drastic overhaul”

  1. [email protected]

    I have just finished teacher training in secondary Food & textiles. Both are so restricted by having to show ‘skills’ which are evident for food in baking and pastry more than anything else. Textiles doesn’t relate the the textiles industry, rather the arts and crafts/ textile art scene. It’s been a frustrating journey and I’m hoping the new food and nutrition curriculum can help move things forward as the balance between savory/healthy eating and cakes/pastry is not great.

  2. Kiri Valsamis

    Well put, Jill. All too often, there is ignorance and derision of Home Economics-related courses. Food Technology is an applied science. Providing a setting in our schools where knowledge, skills and values are developed, in relation to food is vital.

  3. Gill Dearman

    Food technology is a thing of the past, the new KS3 curriculum is cooking and nutrition with the GCSE becoming food preparation and nutrition – the specifications are designed to address the nutritional needs requirements.

  4. Sandra Heinze

    I’ve been a head of food technology for over 15 years and am embracing the new ks3 curriculum and currently revamping it to build the stepping stones to the new GCSE next year. I am however disappointed that some people, both in and out of education, believe that current food teaching is all about sweet foods, lack of skills and no nutrition – not true, in actual fact far from it. I know in many schools, food may not be delivered by a food specialist and has been restricted by the previous d&t curriculum, however we have ALWAYS incorporated nutrition and healthy eating into all that we do, majority of products have been savoury and we have actively encouraged pupils to try new ingredients and skills. I also know from working with many other schools in the borough and outer areas that we are not the only ones who do this. The vast majority of food teachers want to teach like this and do so, unfortunately, some practioners, as in all subjects, exhibit some bad practice. Hopefully, with all the changes now occurring with food now being virtually removed from d&t, and the new gcse’s being introduced, perhaps focus and emphasis should be placed on the imminent scrapping of A level food, other wise why have we spent all this time campaigning for changes at ks3 and 4. And for those non specialists or those who think all we do is cakes, I suggest you look online for all the fabulous resources available, starting with Food a Fact of Life from the British Nutrition Foundation, or My Cooking Counts from Meat and Education, plus the wonderful Food Teachers Centre – many other subject areas are envious of the support mechanisms in place for food teachers and the amount of sharing of resources and collaboration we have…if you choose to participate.

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