Education Quandary

'How can we stop our pupils rejecting our new Jamie Oliver-style school dinners in favour of summer packed lunches?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

This is all about money. Although everyone at this small rural primary school agrees the new meals are delicious, they cost much more to buy in than the old ones. So when more pupils opt for packed lunches in the summer - as primary pupils often do - it costs the school thousands to prop up its school dinner contract. What can it do?

If the numbers wanting packed lunches are relatively low, and you have a lot of supportive parents, the best thing may be to lay all the school meal costings out in front of them at the beginning of the year and explain why you must have a three-term commitment for school dinners - or you will have to revert to a cheaper contract. That way, the majority of parents, who are presumably all in favour of the improved dinners, are likely to bring the others into line. If it is a lot of pupils wanting packed lunches, you need to make it much more difficult for children to opt out, perhaps by telling them they must choose their summer term option at the start of the school year or, better still, at the beginning of cold, damp January.

You could also make packed lunches less appealing by laying down guidelines about what is allowed in lunch boxes (no crisps, chocolate, fizzy drinks, sweets) and corralling those children in their own small room. That way the lure of the lunch box may swiftly pall and the appeal of nutritious school meals rise again.

Readers' advice

In my experience of two children and three schools it is not so much the food that influences them, but the practical arrangements. Their objections to school dinners are: too long spent queuing, lunchtime clubs mean that there is no time to go into the dining hall, packed lunches can be eaten away from bad-tempered dinner ladies. Most schools promote school dinners on the basis of the food whereas perhaps they should give more thought to the ambience.
Olwen Poulter, Leeds

In our school the attraction of packed lunches is being able to go out to play as soon as you are finished. Of course, children want to do that in summer. You could keep the packed lunch children in until all the school dinner children are finished, but then you are only swapping good food for fresh air and exercise. Perhaps you could make sure the school dinner children are served faster so none of their playtime is lost.
Maggie Roy, Wiltshire

At my children's prep school, everyone has to have the lunch provided. Teachers and pupils sit down together and the etiquette of mealtimes is part of the ambience of the school. Yet I read that there are primary schools that now give children lessons in how to hold a knife and fork because many of them arrive at school only ever having eaten chips and pizza with their fingers. Proper meals are essential if children are to learn about nutrition and manners, and they should never be offered the option of sandwiches and crisps.
Lucinda Clements, Surrey

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

My seven- and eight-year-old have a television in their bedroom. All their friends have them, too. Now their school has sent a letter home asking parents to ban televisions from bedrooms, saying it is bad for learning. Are they right? What is the evidence? And how are we supposed to take away something that seems to our children so normal?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 26 June to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.