Can cook, will cook

A west London school has started teaching children how to enjoy preparing and eating food. Annie Bell applauds
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The domestic science lessons that I remember were formulaic and joyless – an A to Z of useless small cakes none of which I've cooked since. If I was at school now, however, I'd be lucky to learn to cook at all. Less than half of children aged four to 10 receive any formal instruction as a part of their education

The domestic science lessons that I remember were formulaic and joyless – an A to Z of useless small cakes none of which I've cooked since. If I was at school now, however, I'd be lucky to learn to cook at all. Less than half of children aged four to 10 receive any formal instruction as a part of their education

The start of the RSA's Focus on Food week on Monday is cue once again to turn our attention to the lack of provision for teaching school children about food. Backed by Waitrose, Focus on Food's aim is to reintroduce cooking into schools, and it helps teachers and visits schools to show the way. Despite the campaign to put cooking back in the National Curriculum we are unlikely to see the Government reverse food education policy in the near future; how cooking is taught and whether it's taught at all is left entirely up to each school to decide. But where individual schools have risen to the challenge, their example might inspire others to follow.

One such is St James's Independent School in west London. The children begin as early as four years old with lessons in elementary baking. As they get older they move on to become nutritionally aware, eventually learning the social skills that go with cooking for themselves and their friends as they reach the sixth form.

The programme began when Liz Edmunds, whose six children have all passed through the school, took a class of 15-year-old girls – "at maxi-grunge stage" as she puts it – away for a week to introduce them to some of the niceties of keeping house. The course that evolved included cooking lunch and clearing up after it, as well as entertaining guests. After all, it's all very well being able to cook, but can you wash up, hold a conversation and remember to take the baguettes out of the oven at the same time? This beginning led to the ribbon-snipping at the Art of Hospitality Suite, a converted Nissen hut consisting of a demonstration kitchen and dining room, set up by Edmunds and Julia Chalkley, a professional teacher and caterer.

The practical and social dimensions implicit in cooking are central to the way cooking is taught at the school. The dozen nine- to 10-year-old girls I joined had "picnics" as their theme for the term. Gathered around retired master baker John Frei, they were shown how to make wholemeal bread, and shape it into rolls. The way the children cooked together was especially inspiring. In my day, you had your station and were expected to remain there.

When it came to the flapjacks there was an organised flurry of hands – six pairs to a bowl yet no squabbles – weighing and stirring. Despite alarming statistics about how little children know about food, these ones cheerfully debated the merits of feta versus ricotta for their cheese and spinach filo pies. Later when I asked them whether they cooked at home, every hand shot up, and only one claimed to enjoy Ready, Steady, Cook. Though just to prove they were normal, all admitted that they rather liked Jamie Oliver.

At the end of the morning, with fragrant and risen rolls emerging from the oven, they set to filling tissue-lined picnic boxes, one for themselves and one for a classmate. The social aspect of cooking is extended further up the school where sixth formers going on to university take a two-day culinary survival course. At a new supper club these students get together and cook a dinner party for themselves and their friends. It reflects what Edmunds describes as the culture of enabling, turning out pupils who are not only educated but equipped with life skills.

It's costly to run a unit like this, and St James achieves it by combining its educational functions with Julia Chalkley's catering business and cookery demonstrations.

Across London, the Woodcroft infants school in Edgware is the beneficiary of the Academy of Culinary Arts Adopt a School Trust. The Trust arranges for chefs to help teach cookery to children in schools around the country, but Woodcroft is the first to have a teaching kitchen designed for children, helped by sponsorship from the KitchenAid mixer people. More child-friendly kitchens could follow thanks to KitchenAid and any other sponsors who come forward. Let's hope they do. The future of cooking in schools depends on all these initiatives. E

The Art of Hospitality, St James School, Earsby Street, London W14 (020-7348 1755).

Focus on Food, RSA at Dean Clough, Dean Clough, Halifax (01422 250250).

Academy of Culinary Arts Adopt a School Trust, 53 Cavendish Road, London SW12 (020-8673 6300).

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