If they eat junk, they'll flunk

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The Independent Online
If you are what you eat, perhaps this explains the behaviour of some of the junk-food-eating, anti-social pupils teachers have to teach.

At this school we decided to test the theory by homing in on a group of pupils whom we considered to be at risk from the prevailing food culture.

The first case-study concerns Kevin, who is 15 and beginning to be seriously disruptive, especially after the lunch break. His concentration span is two or three minutes and he is falling behind with most of his course work. He is also becoming a problem in the neighbourhood.

Kevin never has breakfast - "don't like it" - but will have a drink of lemonade or Coke. He doesn't have any food or drink at break-time either but at lunch will have his regular can of pop, usually Coke, crisps and a bar of chocolate.

After school, he goes to an empty home and microwaves two beef-burgers, washed down with a can of pop. He switches on the television when his mother returns from work and either has microwave chips or, if his mum is cooking, a jacket potato. Again, he has Coke or pop. Later in the evening, he will drink several cans or bottles of pop.

Kevin has a reading age of 9.9 and a comprehension age of 7.5.

Stuart is 14 and one of the most difficult pupils to teach in a normal class situation, where he will go to the limit in order to attract attention or disrupt proceedings. He has an addiction to cough sweets, bringing two packs to school each day and buying at least one more on the way home.

For breakfast, he has Cornflakes with four spoons of sugar and orange squash. During morning break, he eats his cough-sweets and for school dinner he always has chips, beans, jam tart and custard as well as a glass of orange squash.

Once at home, he has chocolate biscuits and squash while watching the soaps. For supper he will have chips, either cooked by his mother or bought from the chip shop, often with curry sauce. He hates vegetables except when he has stew because then you "can't taste the vegetables".

Stuart cannot concentrate and seems to want to learn only through the medium of a computer. He finds it almost impossible to sit still and tries to interfere with the work of other pupils by calling out to them.

Stuart, who has a reading age of 7.7 and a comprehension age of 6.6, is so disruptive at home that his parents, who are separated, take it in turns to try to look after him.

Tom has had difficulties building relationships with his peers, resenting those who appeared to be more academically successful than himself. When we found that his diet was based upon white bread, golden syrup, sugar, chocolate bars and crisps, it came as no surprise to learn that he was forever hungry, and suffered from migraines and insomnia.

Tom was fortunate. His parents were able to support, as well as fund, his transition to a healthy diet. Now he is taking A-levels, has innumerable friends and is driving the girls and everyone else wild with his heavy rock band.

Tracey is not the subject of a similar success story: her inadequate diet, based upon sugar-rich products, unrefined flour and fatty foods, has taken an exacting toll upon her attendance, academic progress and personal morale.

Typical of so many 15-year-olds, Carl suffers from significant learning difficulties, due to his failure to concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time. He also has behavioural difficulties, interfering with the education of other pupils and being a continual nuisance. He has a serious addiction to sugar and lives a rollercoaster existence of hunger/chocolate bingeing/hyperactivity/more hunger. He is an intelligent pupil whose quality of life is being destroyed.

When Carl cannot afford to feed his habits, he is able to concentrate for long periods, work quietly and even operate as a member of a team.

Craig, who lives for sweets, sugar and chips, suffers from continual colds, stomach upsets and fidgeting. He has abandoned his education and drifted into a life of crime, like his father before him, so becoming another member of the club for self-fulfiling prophecies.

So what is to be done?

First, there is no magic wand with which we can wave away such serious problems afflicting our children's personal, educational and social lives. Parents, teachers and other interested parties need to join together as missionaries in what would have to become a national crusade.

For their part, schools can use their wits and keep their street cred by arranging special Chinese, Asian, Caribbean, vegetarian, but not necessarily American, "Food Days", while attractive presentation and strategic positioning of meals can influence the choice of healthier items. School tuck shops can insidiously introduce healthier items like cereal bars, filled wholemeal rolls, fresh fruit and sugar-free drinks.

Other strategies could include classroom discussion with well-informed teachers, encouraging pupils to bake their own wholesome snacks, and encouraging parental involvement through coffee morning and evening "clinics" with visiting experts, videos and group therapy sessions.

Above all, it is time to celebrate - and share - the philosophy of healthy eating for our young charges, to organise as a matter ofurgency a dietary master plan and develop national methodologies that will help us to save a generation of socially disoriented, emotionally disturbed and academically damaged children.

The writer is headteacher at Baverstock Grant-Maintained School in Birmingham.