Jamie's school dinner triumph (but Kelly says she deserves the credit)

It took a celebrity TV chef just four weeks to start to undo more than 20 years of damage to the school meals service.

The Government from the Prime Minister downwards was waiting with bated breath yesterday to see how Jamie Oliver would react to its announcement of an extra £280m for the service.

Asked by The Independent whether we should be thanking her or Oliver for the funding package, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said: "I'd like to think both."

With the threat of the Conservatives trumping them - they say they will announce their own package after meeting Oliver tonight - the Government might well have had to go back to the drawing board and raid its reserves once again for more cash.

The response from parents to Oliver's Channel 4 television series, Jamie's School Dinners, has been so overwhelming that the Government couldn't afford to ignore his plea for more money to be given to the service.

Hence, when he arrived to present his petition - signed by more than 270,000 people - at 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair was there to greet him.

Oliver's response to the package would have heartened him. It was "20 years too late", began the chef, but then he added it was "the right sort of money".

"I am very excited," he added. It was "a massive improvement to where we were a week ago". However, he added: "I think unfortunately it has taken a documentary and really the hearts and emotions of the kids and families that I've filmed to sort of touch the nation."

The package, which covers the next three years, consists of £220m in new funding grants to schools and local education authorities - including a minimum spend on ingredients of 50p a day per pupil in primary schools and 60p in secondaries. In Oliver's series, it was revealed that schools in Greenwich, south London, were spending just 37p a day.

There will also be £60m to set up a new School Food Trust - which will give independent support and advice to schools and parents on how to improve the standard of school meals and change eating cultures. Oliver has agreed to become an adviser to the trust and Ms Kelly hopes other chefs may follow in his footsteps.

Tough new minimum nutrition guidelines will be drawn up by September and become mandatory in schools by September 2006.

In addition, Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, will review the quality of school meals as part of regular inspections from September.

There were claims from opposition parties yesterday that the Government had only jumped on the bandwagon as a result of the TV series.

Tim Collins, the Conservatives' education spokesman, said: "After eight years in office, 10 education Bills, four secretaries of state and a five-year education plan last year, it is breathtakingly cynical for Tony Blair suddenly to claim he is passionate about the school meals service just because a celebrity chef has made a television programme about it."

Phil Willis, for the Liberal Democrats, also said it was sad that it had "taken a celebrity chef to get the Government to act".

At the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' annual conference in Brighton, delegates burst out laughing when the school standards minister Stephen Twigg announced the package.

They were particularly unimpressed by the move to get Ofsted to inspect school food. Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, asked how they would do their evaluation, adding: "Presumably what they do is simply try school meals and then wait until the morning." Mr Twigg also rejected a call from delegates to ban vending machines which sell unhealthy snacks from schools - saying it was up to individual schools to decide what to do.

Doctors' leaders pointed out that the Conservatives had been responsible for the biggest cuts to the school meals service. In 1981, they had repealed legislation allowing every pupil the right to a school meal. As a result, eight local education authorities ceased to provide a hot-meals service and gave packed lunches to children who were entitled to free school meals.

Nutritional guidelines, which were scrapped at the time of the Conservative legislation, were only reintroduced into schools in 2001. Ms Kelly said: "The very first day that I took office [in December] I said to people I wanted to see an improvement in the school meals service and I didn't even know that Jamie Oliver was making a programme about it."

She said that the Government's package was about "changing cultures" and that it would use advisers from the new Schools Food Trust to go into schools and ensure cooks had enough training in how to prepare healthy meals.

"Jamie has done fantastically in raising this as an issue among parents, teachers and schools," she added.

Mr Blair said: "We have been working on this for quite a long time. I would pay tribute to him [Oliver]. What his programme has done is brought into focus what everyone in their hearts knows - which is if you feed children decent food, you are more likely to get responsible children who are healthier and fitter."

* The Government's package only covers schools in England. The Welsh Assembly said yesterday that it was already spending more money on meals - with Carmarthenshire spending 51p per head on primary school meals and Caerphilly 47p.

TWO RISING STARS?

PUBLIC PERSONA

Mix one fresh-faced Essex boy with a passion for culinary creations, pepper that with an irritating Cockney accent, and what do you get? The cheekiest chap on television apparently, who is determined to make healthy cooking fashionable for a new generation.

WHAT THEY USED TO SAY

Jamie Oliver overload syndrome. Seemingly sick of his smiling face, everyone stuck in the knife. Branded a "whore" by Clarissa Dickson-Wright for promoting farmed salmon - despite refusing to serve in his restaurant.

WHAT THEY SAY NOW

Every parents' new best friend, his crown as golden boy of the culinary world restored. Steve Sinnott, head of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Don't you think 'Sir Jamie Oliver' has a certain ring?"

PUBLIC PERSONA

Young, enthusiastic, privately educated. Often called a "brainbox". As famous for following the Catholic group Opus Dei as for being a working mother of four children. Holds the record for giving birth to the most children while an MP.

WHAT THEY USED TO SAY

Tipped as the brightest young star of the Blair administration on her appointment as Education Secretary three months ago, aged 36. Admired for juggling the maternal with the ministerial, prompting cries of "supermum".

WHAT THEY SAY NOW

"Patronising, sanctimonious," said jeering secondary school heads. The same union to have endorsed the deification of Oliver have granted her the dubious title of "worst Education Secretary since 1997".

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