Cooking at school is cool

Teaching kids their way round the kitchen means more than making pizza. The spin-offs would include jobs, leadership skills and even improved family life, writes Prue Leith
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For years the class and sex divides in cooking have puzzled me. Traditionally, if dockers' or dustmens' sons were not too bright, they'd be directed to the catering trade. Toffs' sons, even thick as two planks, would try for Sotheby's or the wine trade.

On the other hand, ever since the Second World War it has been acceptable for middle and upper-class young ladies to cook. True, the male bastions of the top restaurant and hotel kitchens have only recently been open to them, but they could be professional cooks and their parents would be proud of them. A career in cooking would not be thought a waste, even if they had straight As at A-level. Working-class parents, perhaps with family memories of granny being "in service", used to resist any desire of daughters to train as cooks.

Cooking is still thought of as a trade for dummies. Yet too be a good cook requires real intelligence. It may not be academic intelligence, but it's intelligence all the same. A chef has to do half a dozen things at once while keeping an eye on another dozen being done by other people. He or she must be able to keep cool under enormous pressure. Then there is a budget to manage, a team to lead, customers to satisfy. The job requires leadership, flexibility, thinking on one's feet, creativity, judgement and a passion for quality.

And yet most Brits do not give the idea of cooking for a living a second thought. Which means that a lot of jobs go to foreign nationals and that unemployed young people stay that way because they scorn the idea of cooking.

There is an answer of course, and that is to teach cooking at school. Not the old domestic science of rock buns and lardy cake, all cheap fat and sugar. And not the Food Technology of packaging, hygiene, production, planning and processing. (I've no objection to Food Technology, I hasten to say, but I confess to finding the idea of a child taking home a print- out of a pizza topping designed on the computer rather dispiriting. How much more satisfactory to take home a warm, pungent, edible pizza.)

Hundreds of teaching kitchens have been scrapped and turned into computer rooms. You can teach a lot more subjects on a computer than you can on a cooker. And teaching cooking is expensive. All that heat and sharp knives need a lot of supervision, and cooking requires specialist teachers, adherence to hygiene regulations and expensive ingredients. So giving up on cooking is understandable. But I think it is a mistake.

Cooking can teach a lot more than how to make pizza. Core competencies such as problem-solving, creativity and team working are obvious examples. So are nutrition and hygiene. Less obvious, I think, is the value that cooking can have in introducing very young children to maths, to physics, to chemistry and to what I still think of as geography, but what is probably now called ethnic and cultural studies.

In short, I think cooking can make children like school. I have never met a child who did not like eating. Nor cooking, given the chance.

And then, I believe that if the nation knew how to cook, we'd see some real benefits in social cohesion. Children only communicate, even with each other, in two main ways: when they are eating, and when talking to their friends on the telephone. Most of the time they are interacting with a computer, watching a screen or listening to music. Wouldn't a knees- under family meal help them to communicate with their parents? If mum or dad could cook, might there not be more family activity round the chopping board or the hob?

And if we, as a nation, knew about good food and good cooking and cared about them as the Italians, the French, the Chinese or even the Americans do, might we not eat out more, shop more economically and cost the National Health Service less? Might not more quality food businesses (restaurants, craft food-makers, specialist food shops) thrive and provide more jobs?

Of course, although I believe all these arguments about jobs and social cohesion and cross-curricular benefits to be solid ones, I make them mostly because I'll use any argument at all to get kids cooking.

The real reason I want their hands in the flour is that I cannot bear them to be denied a chance to do something so creative, so satisfying, so useful and such fun.

The writer is the restaurateur and Chairman of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.