Top of the class

School dinners are such a hot topic even Jamie Oliver is getting involved. But the lunchtimes at St Aidan's are already scoring high marks, says Simon Beckett
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The first thing you notice about the kitchen at St Aidan's High School in Harrogate is the smell. Instead of the unsavoury composite of fried grease and overcooked vegetables that's characteristic of most school dining-halls, the kitchen smells... well, like a restaurant's. It actually looks like one, too, with stainless-steel equipment and staff who wear chef's whites. This is school dinner, but not as we know it.

The first thing you notice about the kitchen at St Aidan's High School in Harrogate is the smell. Instead of the unsavoury composite of fried grease and overcooked vegetables that's characteristic of most school dining-halls, the kitchen smells... well, like a restaurant's. It actually looks like one, too, with stainless-steel equipment and staff who wear chef's whites. This is school dinner, but not as we know it.

Four years ago, St Aidan's was one of the first schools in the UK to tell the contract caterers to sling their chips. A Church of England school for 11 to 18-year-olds, with a 30-mile catchment area that extends as far as Leeds, the school meals had become so unpopular that less than a third of the 1,800 pupils ate them. Things were so bad even the headmaster took sandwiches. "I can't find an adjective," says deputy head Steve Hatcher, who took on the task of tackling the problem. "They were appaling, atrocious..."

They were also far from unique. An emphasis on convenience and profitability has led to chips, fast-food and fizzy drinks becoming staples of many school dining-rooms. But with childhood obesity - perhaps not entirely coincidentally - having tripled in the past 25 years, attitudes finally seem to be changing. There are plans to remove vending machines from schools, while sweet manufacturers are paying lip-service at least to the notion of healthy eating by scrapping "king-size" chocolate bars (admittedly in favour of two smaller-sized ones in the same wrapper). More significantly, last month the Government announced its Healthy Living Blueprint, aimed at restricting the amount of fat, sugar and salt in school meals.

Even so, some people believe that that doesn't go far enough. Jamie Oliver has criticised the standards of food served in schools and taken on the task of revamping those of Kidbrooke School in Greenwich in his new TV series, Jamie's School Dinners, due to be screened next year. And River Café chef Rose Gray recently set up a charity called Cooks in Schools, which aims to improve the quality of children's food and health by educating and advising the schools themselves. "You can make delicious food that doesn't cost a lot," she claims. "They're spending the money at the moment on paying for catering companies to dish up stuff that's pre-packaged, with ingredients in them you don't want to know about. And then transporting it. Nearly every school has a kitchen - why don't they make more of them?"

At St Aidan's that's exactly what they did. After an interview process that involved a Ready, Steady, Cook style cook-off, they hired Trevor Whitehead, a chef who used to work at London's Café Royal. Now, with a new swipe-card system of payment that allows pupils' diets to be monitored, a new kitchen and a largely new team, lunchtimes have been revolutionised. Instead of being trucked in once a week, virtually all the food is delivered, prepared and cooked freshly each day. "This gives me just as much pleasure as cooking foie gras or lobster," says Whitehead, who sources most of his produce from the same local suppliers used in his restaurant days. "It's working with good ingredients, exactly the same. Just not as expensive."

The absence of foie gras or lobster doesn't seem a problem for the pupils, any more than the fact that chips are only served once a week. The school has three dining-rooms; one for 11-year-old year sevens, a new LEA-funded, £250,000 showpiece restaurant for years eight to 11, and one for sixth-formers that also serves as an all-day café. While the prices have risen * slightly, that hasn't prevented over 90 per cent of its pupils from eating school dinners every day, making the catering operation financially independent of the education system. For £1.66 pupils can choose from either sandwiches (breads includes white, granary, focaccia and bagels), what Whitehead classifies as fast-food (such as fusilli bolognese or sweet-and-sour pork with egg-fried rice), or more traditional, meat-and-two-veg options. All with fruit juice - fizzy drinks are only available two days a week - and either home-made cake or hot pudding.

"There's loads of choice," says 12-year-old Rob Devall, between mouthfuls of 80 per cent fish fish-fingers, minted new potatoes and garden peas. Next to him, Matthew Gosling sits over the remains of a tuna sandwich. "They're much better than they used to be. They're also healthier. And they make it nice healthier." That sounds suspiciously like a party line, but it's one that all the students seem to buy into. "The food used to make you cringe. You're not scared to put it in your mouth now," giggles 13-year old Alexia Chandler-Sfikakis.

Nor is this just about food. Three days a week a DJ from the local radio station comes in to perform, while films are played in the main hall on rainy days. The intention is to reinforce the social aspect of food, as well as the importance of a balanced diet. "We're trying to say, sitting down and eating a meal with friends is a good thing to do. Many youngsters won't know what a knife or fork is. They'll eat from paper containers, fast-food or a microwave meal," says Hatcher. "The big debate when we started was, what's this got to do with education? Well it's got everything to do with education - it affects learning habits and behaviour. The contract caterers were feeding 300, we're now feeding nearly 2,000. It's a huge improvement."

Gold star grub

Thomas Fairchild Community School, Hackney, London

"We believe that children who are given rubbish to eat will not learn properly," declares the Thomas Fairchild website. Since September 2002, the school has taken over management of the kitchen and now employs the cooks directly. No processed food is used, and all meat, fruit and veg are organic and bought locally wherever possible.

St Peter's Primary School, Nottingham

It's five years since St Peter's opted out of the contract-catering system run by the council. It now cooks locally sourced food as part of a new approach towards educating children about what they eat. It advises other schools wanting to follow a similar route, and also aims to increase the proportion of organic produce used to 30 per cent.

The Rickstones School, Essex

Canteen staff are employed directly by the school, allowing them to choose their own suppliers and menus. Only low-fat spreads and dressings are used for sandwiches and salads. Fizzy drinks have been phased out in favour of milk drinks, fruit juices and water.

Hampton Court House, Surrey

An independent school for three to 18-year-olds, in 2003 its in-house school meals received a revamp courtesy of two of its pupils' mothers. Taking over the menu, they sourced local West Country suppliers for free-range and organic produce, and introduced apples and pears as snacks. Take-up of school dinners has risen to 95 per cent.

Broomlands Primary School, Kelso

Although Broomlands hasn't opted out, it has replaced the cash cafeteria with a set-meals system. After consulting the pupils, it devised a four-choice menu that includes a traditional meal, vegetarian option, children's choice and healthy soup and sandwich. Menus are distributed in advance so parents can help their children to choose.

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