Chef wars broke out today as Education Secretary Michael Gove put the founders of one of the country’s best-known restaurant chains in charge of a review of the school meals service.
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the co-founders of the LEON restaurant chain, have been given a free hand to examine school meals across the country - and come up with a series of recommendations
However, the decision was immediately criticised by TV chef Jamie Oliver who warned Mr Gove: “Now is not the time for more costly reports.”
At the centre of the controversy is Mr Oliver’s criticism of Mr Gove for allowing his free schools and academies to ignore national nutritional standards - introduced after Mr Oliver’s campaign to improve school meal standards in his Channel Four TV programme.
“This just delays action for another year or more,” said Mr Oliver.
“I thought it was ironic that this morning’s announcement by Mr Gove was given at a lovely school with a kitchen garden - and with a dedicated school caterer creating freshly cooked meals on site.
“This simply does not reflect the current resource and reality in most schools across the country.”
He added: “I'm fairly confident that the gentlemen from LEON will end up pushing for the same things that I, and many others, have been pushing for years but the question is: will Mr Gove listen? Will he finally do anything about the problems in school food?”
MR Oliver has been critical of the Government’s decision to exempt its free schools and academies from national nutritional standards. In their review, Messrs Dimbleby and Vincent will be able to examine that thorny question.
The Department for Education said today that “nothing’s off limits” for the Dimbleby and Vincent review and they would be free to visit academies and come up with recommendations “however unpalatable”. (That does not mean the recommended food will be unpalatable).
While they will take on the academies part of the remit, Mr Dimbleby and Mr Vincent believe that regulation is not the only answer when it comes to improving school meals. Take-up is still fairly low and one solution, they argue, is teaching pupils more about the preparation of healthy food to gain their interest.
The LEON restaurant chain prides itself on delivering nutritious food that tastes good, in large volume, to an agreed budget - something which will stand them in good stead as they survey school dinners.
They have 11 restaurants in London, one in Bluewater in Kent and one at Terminal Three at London’s Heathrow airport.
“Our job is to find out which schools are doing well and why,” said journalist and chef Henry Dimbleby.
John Vincent added: “We have a mission at LEON to make it easier for everybody to eat good food. We do it commercially with LEON and so we are energised by the chance to do so with school food.”
However, Mr Gove’s decision to set up the review - which will not report until next year - was criticised by school meal caterers and opposition MPs.
Lynda Mitchall, who chairs the Local Authority Caterers Association, said: “We’re initially slightly disappointed that he (Mr Gove) feels the need for another review.”
She said it was “slightly confusing” the the School Food Trust - set up under the previous government to monitor standards - had been sidelined by the decision.
“The big problem is half the secondary schools with 1,250,000 pupils (in academies)are without nutritional standards. Do we need someone from outside of the school society to come and look at this?”
Sharon Hodgson, Labour’s spokeswoman on children and families, added:”We don’t need another review of nutrition in schools - we already have a comprehensive sey of standards developed by experts.
“The real problem is that Michael Gove has deliberately exempted academies and free schools ... from those standards.”
In its remit, the Department for Education says the duo should examine which schools are doing well and how all schools could reach a standard to be proud of. They should also build up a systematic picture of the school meals service throughout the country.
Tough nutritional styandards were introduced under the last government after a campaign from Jamie Oliver to improve the nutritional content of school dinners.
Even so, figures show take-up in just 38 per cent in secondary schools and 38 per cent in primaries.