Child's play: Why cooking should be on the primary school menu

Teaching young children to cook may sound eccentric but it's happening in Suffolk. Could it be a blueprint for the nation? Jamie Oliver thinks so. Hilary Wilce takes a look

He's been on our televisions, in our supermarkets and cooking dinner for our world leaders. Now Jamie Oliver is back in our primary schools. He's backing a pilot kitchen classroom which has just opened in a Suffolk village school and will be showing the country how to do common sense cooking with children.

The classroom is the product of a visionary head, a local food charity and the commitment of Jamie Oliver's right-hand woman, Louise Holland. It is, says Oliver, "a fantastic community project and a great guide for others."

Orford Church of England Primary School's new kitchen has been built on the side of the school, close to the school garden where pupils grow fruit and vegetables. In it, in groups of up to 10, older pupils spend a morning a week learning to cook good, basic meals from local ingredients. These include sausages with red wine and herb gravy, marinated chicken, pancakes with apple sauce, and jam pudding. Younger pupils also get a chance to cook, and parents have started to ask if they can have cooking lessons too.

The kitchen is wonderfully bright, with views over the surrounding countryside, and has been splendidly kitted out with six cookers and great equipment, but by far the best thing is that what goes on inside is good old-fashioned common sense.

No one at the school talks about key stages or curriculum targets when explaining why they have put cooking on the timetable, nor do they allow excessive health and safety worries to curb what goes on. In this kitchen, as part of their regular day, pupils – quite simply – learn to cook. They use knives and graters, and produce delicious food. When they have finished, they sit down at the dining table they have laid with a tablecloth and name tags – and eat it.

Along the way they learn about local produce and good diet. ("This bacon comes from Andrew, the butcher." "Who knows what colour rape is when it's growing?") They study planning and presentation, learn a bit of chemistry, practise weighing and measuring, do some writing, and carry out team work. They pick up practical skills and their new accomplishments boost their self-esteem which, in turn, loops back into how well they do in school.

None of this feels like work. Will Bostock, 11, explains: "You're learning, but you're cooking at the same time." Tyrah Hilaire, 11, says, "Everything we do here links back to what we do in class." Sam Cooper, nine, who has just learned to separate an egg and describes it as "like hard water running over your hands" says with a grin "it's all just good". Several pupils have already tried cooking at home.

"I am passionate about children learning skills, not just knowledge," says Richard Dedicoat, the head, who found an architect parent to design the building and persuaded the Church of England school authorities to find £50,000 to pay for it.

"I want them to be learning in a real-life context, not just through books or the internet, but by getting their hands dirty." The school was already growing its own produce with the help of Eastfeast, which promotes growing and eating good food, so cookery was the logical next step.

Meanwhile, Louise Holland had seen classroom kitchens in Australian schools and was keen to introduce the idea here. "I really feel we have an obligation to teach children how to cook good basic food. It is a life skill every bit as much as reading, writing and arithmetic."

Central to the project is Kate Kilburn, 39, who is funded by Eastfeast to cook with the children two mornings a week. A mum at the school, with a background in food and catering – she was a regional winner in ITV's Britain's Best Dish competition last year with her smoked salmon tarts – is calm, reassuring and a born teacher. "Now we're going to grate the lemon for the dressing. Who remembers what the zest is?" she asks the group. "And why don't we want the pith? That's right, it's bitter."

On the morning of my visit, nine pupils cooked macaroni cheese with spinach and bacon and stir-fried kale with a lemon and garlic dressing, followed by rhubarb, apple and strawberry meringue pots. Neither the kale nor the rhubarb was popular with the young cooks, but most were willing to try them out.

"I believe in normal cooking with good quality ingredients," says Kate Kilburn. "I am trained in catering and I was a chalet girl for 18 months, which was pretty full-on, so I've got experience. We use serrated knives and we've had no accidents, touch wood, and I always try to have two helpers, especially if there are lots of bubbly things around."

Parents pay a small amount towards ingredients, and the kitchen classroom has been backed by two dozen different sponsors from Sainsbury's, through Whirlpool and Tefal (the Jamie Oliver name has extensive pulling power) to local businesses and professionals.

Now the project is to be evaluated with a view to rolling it out to other schools. Richard Dedicoat, whose previous school was in urban, multicultural Reading, sees no reason why it could not work in all contexts. "You have to have vision and the staff on board as well."

According to Louise Holland, this cuts across children from all backgrounds. "It's amazing what changes you see even in a short time," she says. "Children achieve something when they cook and you see the results expressed in things like their self-esteem." Also, if today's pupils learn to cook, their children will learn from them tomorrow, she says. Holland plans to use the findings from Orford to press for government funding for kitchen classrooms.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Oliver waxes lyrical about the initiative. What happens in primary schools sets children on the right foot and is a good use of money long-term, he says. He is sceptical about whether current government moves to put cooking on to the curriculum will make much difference. "There is still no dedicated cooking training for teachers, good facilities are still rare and Ofsted will still not be overseeing it, so I have little confidence that it's going to work," he says.

Even at Orford primary school, where good food is visibly valued, the dining room gulf between the white china plates of the young cooks and red plastic "airline" trays of the children eating school dinners says everything about how far there is to go in create a healthy food culture in this country.

"I think if there is to be change you have to do it for yourselves," says Oliver. This pilot classroom kitchen shows the way.

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