Leading article: The healthy alternative

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Hungry children returning to school yesterday will have noticed a few changes. Those turning up for breakfast will have found chips off the menu and cereals offered in their place. The experience of snacking at break will have been transformed. Those visiting the tuck shop will have found fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate replaced by apples and water. And at lunchtime, pupils will have found a portion of vegetables thrust on to their trays.

On the day the new nutrition guidelines from the Department for Education came into effect we also learnedthere was to be a greater investment in the training of school cooks. But the change goes further. By 2008 there will also be classes to teach secondary school children the basic skills of cooking. Home economics, it seems, is to return.

All of which is commendable and exactly the sort of thing the Government ought to be doing. Something has gone deeply awry with the attitude of most schools towards the food they serve up, or allow to be eaten. Far too many have sacrificed healthiness for the sake of convenience, and quality for the sake of cheapness. This is, no doubt, a reflection of the poor quality of the British diet in general. But that merely makes it more incumbent on our schools to take a lead in educating pupils on the importance of a balanced diet, whether that be in the canteen, or the classroom. If pupils are not learning such things at home, they should at least be subject to them at school.

An improved diet at school will yield wide benefits. Studies have shown that academic attainment rises when children eat healthier school meals. For too long diet has been regarded as a peripheral aspect of a child's education. Improving food skills in education should also help defuse the obesity time bomb in our society. If people are taught good habits young, they are more likely to retain them in later life.

We must be realistic. Better quality school meals will not make much difference to obesity levels overnight. As a report from the School Food Trust revealed last week, nearly a third of primary school children buy fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate on their way to school, or home. Schools have only a limited degree of control over what pupils eat. And when they are at home, it becomes a question of what their parents will allow.

But as the response to Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign revealed last year, there was substantial parental interest in improving the diet of our children. It is likely that such concern extends to their own diets. We must hope that with these sensible guidelines for schools, the Government is preparing the ground for a broader revolution in attitudes to what we Britons eat.