The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver had one main aim when he launched his TV series, Jamie's School Dinners – to improve the standards of school meals for the nation's seven million state schoolchildren. For too long, he proclaimed, they had been feasting on a diet of Turkey Twizzlers and other such fatty foods – resulting in an obesity crisis that threatened to spell disaster for an entire generation.
Unfortunately, though, it looks as if the real consequence of his media drive, and subsequent petition to demand government action, has been to stop children from eating at school at all.
A report by school inspectors published this morning reveals that the £477m government drive to encourage healthy eating is in danger of failing. Up to one in four pupils in some schools have turned their back on the new-style lunches – which banned burgers, limited the supply of chips and replaced battered fish on Fridays with salmon fishcakes.
Inspectors from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, visited 27 schools – and found that take-up had fallen in 19 of them. The fall in numbers eating healthy dinners varied from between 9 and 25 per cent.
"If this trend continues, the impact of the Government's food policies will be limited," the inspectors conclude. "This will particularly be the case for children from more vulnerable families." The report indicates that the "high cost" of healthier dinners has put off some parents from less well-off homes.
The report also warns that some schools – particularly secondaries – set aside too little time for lunches. As a result, pupils complain they do not have time to eat a meal and socialise with friends – and therefore take in sandwiches instead.
Further criticism includes poor marketing of the new meals and a lack of choice. One teenager told inspectors he was getting fitter as a result of regular walks to the chip shop at lunchtimes.
The report reveals that – in some schools – too little space was allocated to school kitchens. In one newly-built school, the priority was for more teaching space with the result that only reheated food could be served. The only fresh food available for children was fruit or salad.
"Food prepared off-site tended to look unattractive and, in several cases, was cold by the time pupils ate it," it adds.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on education, said: "There is no point in having healthy meals if nobody is eating them. The Government's worthy aspiration of healthy meals has backfired because of inadequate funding and rushing their changes."
The report says schools should spend more time teaching pupils the benefits of healthy eating and allow longer for lunchtime. But it warns there may be a long way to go in some schools. In three primary schools surveyed, pupils were unable to hold a knife or fork or hold a conversation while eating their meals.
In most schools, though, vending machines had either been dismantled or were waiting to be taken away – because of the fatty foods and fizzy drinks they had on display.
The Children's minister, Kevin Brennan, said: "We're in this for the long term. Tackling obesity and unhealthy eating needs the backing of every local authority, school, teacher and parent."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, concurred. "You can't change the food and expect the pupils to change the habit of a lifetime," he said. "You must persuade the children through the marketing of the food that it is interesting and attractive and cool to eat."
Oliver yesterday refused to comment on the new figures. But he has said in the past that changing pupils' eating habits would never be easy.Reuse content