It's 1pm at The Petchey Academy in Hackney, north London, and the serving hatches clatter open, revealing rows of grey trays, each one offering exactly the same food as every other tray.
There is only one dish of the day. Today, it is beef stew and mixed vegetables, followed by marmalade sponge and custard. In an age where the words "choice" and "personalisation" have become almost obligatory in schools, this comprehensive school makes a thing of offering no choice at the lunch table, apart from halal and vegetarian versions of the same stew.
"They do actually have a choice," says the academy's food operations manager John Liversidge with a smirk. "They can take it or leave it!"
This may be a joke, but this former restaurateur, who has been at this school since it opened four years ago, works tirelessly, using every trick of culinary creativity and deception, to encourage the 700 pupils to enjoy all his creations.
Today, he has concealed diced pieces of celery, parsnips and onions in the stew, to ensure that the pupils at least eat some vegetables even if they don't choose to take a spoonful of the uncamouflaged carrots, potatoes and leeks. It proves a wise tactic as, on many tables, the vegetables go almost untouched and end up in the black plastic bins.
Mostly the stew is consumed heartily by the 350 students at first sitting, as are the thick slices of locally produced Turkish-style bread given to each table. And the sponge and custard is wolfed down by the vast majority. Whether the meal is positively savoured is immaterial. The students know that it's the only food they will see all day. Packed lunches are banned here, and, unlike at many secondary schools, no one is allowed off the premises at lunch time.
The driving force behind this unbending "we know best" lunch policy is David Daniels, who has been the academy's principal since the start. "Choice is fine if you have the know how to use it," he says. "But our argument is that the young people here do not know how to exercise choice sensibly."
As supporting evidence, he says that the incidence of obesity in Hackney is second only to Glasgow in the United Kingdom. And there's plenty of backing, albeit grudging in some cases, for this theory at today's lunch tables. "If they gave us a choice between something healthy and chips and burgers, it's obvious everyone would choose the chips and burgers," says Ellen Foley, 12. She adds that the stew today is "really nice and creamy and not too salty or spicy."
Nickelle Morgan-Scott, 15, concedes that the meal is OK, but is nevertheless efficiently clearing a plate's worth. "I'm hungry, so I have to eat it," she says, explaining that there are days when her taste buds respond more positively. She mentions a dish involving fish in bread crumbs with tomato sauce that she likes. Petchey's "no choice" policy amounts to a verdict that is partly critical of the Government's tightening of the law on what school kitchens are allowed to serve.
Since Jamie Oliver's damning television series, the turkey twizzlers and pre-heated processed food have been banned, and vending machines no longer stock fizzy drinks and sweets. Schools now, by law, have to offer food that conforms to strict nutritional standards, with healthy items such as fish and fresh vegetables appearing on the menu regularly. However, Liversidge's argument is that this leaves schools with the freedom to offer a broad range of choices every day, with no guarantee that children will choose a healthy combination. There's nothing to stop pupils in most schools opting for a plate of pasta without a sauce, for example, or for a portion of baked beans and chips.
"I know secondary schools that fulfil their fish obligation by buying in 20 portions of salmon because they know that only that number of kids will choose it," says Liversidge. "But when we have fish here, I order in 1,000 portions!"
The food on the plate is not the only element of control exercised by the school on the children's lunchtime experience. The pupils sit in what are called family groups — the same mixed-age group of six round each table every day. Jobs are allocated as they are around the most traditional family dining table. For each course, one pupil collects from the hatch; a second serves up, and the third clears away the plates. Teachers spread themselves around the room and eat with the students.
"Compared with other schools I have worked at, it's really calm here," says PE teacher Huw Levis. "Some of the children might never sit like this in a family group at home."
On another table, teaching assistant Juraj Banovsky agrees: "I like it. The family atmosphere is a safe one," he says. This is a deliberate attempt by the principal to give the pupils the social graces he says are absent in so many of their lives. "Overall, we provide a social as well as an academic education," says Daniels, who retires this year from teaching after 40 years in London and Home Counties schools. "There's more to education than exam results."
Another example of this approach is the introduction of debating sessions for 12 and 13-year-olds (Year 8) in history and science classes this year, so that children hear the type of formal language they rarely encounter in the local environment.
"If they don't know how to handle themselves in formal and social situations, they're not going to get a job," says Daniels. His traditional approach, whether over diet, table manners or speaking skills, certainly seems popular among local families.
It's no surprise perhaps that he's received more than 1,300 applications for the 180 places at the school this coming September.
On the menu
Mains: Smoked mackerel biryani
Spicy salmon with Bombay potatoes
Baked chicken legs with a Jamaican topping
Tandoori fish in a yoghurt marinade
Local sausages and mash
Puddings: Fresh fruit crumble
Pineapple with rice pudding
Yoghurt with diced fresh fruit
Cost: £1.95 a dayReuse content