In 2000 St. Peter's, simply believing that it could provide a better dinner and overall dinnertime experience for its children, took the bold decision to leave the School Meals' Service and set up as one of the first primary schools in the country to provide its own dinners. The rest is history.
It began, as all such improvements must, with the shared vision of Headteacher (David Maddison) and School Cook (Jeanette Orrey) coming together to both offer their own expertise, energy and commitment to this important area of any child's and school's day. It led to the creation of a model based on 'Local Sourcing, Organic Where Possible and Ordinary (but with a minimum of processed)' which, with St. Peter's becoming the first school to ever win the Soil Association's prestigious, 'Local Food Initiative of the Year Award', led to St. Peter's and The Soil Association working together to create the Food for Life Programme which was to change the quality of school meals across the country and help alter the way we think about feeding our children in general. This, allied to simple, but significant innovations, such as a free access salad bar, table cloths and the re-introduction of plates, led not just to improved nutrition, but a new emphasis on the whole culture of meal times in school.
What we came to realise was that meal times were as much about social education as they were about healthy eating (even though the quality of what we were serviing (especially with our growing relationship with our local farm shop in Gonalston). It was clear that one of the main ways we take time out of our busy 21st Century lives is to eat and drink together and it seemed only appropriate that we should help our children learn how to best achieve this from an early age. This not only improved the whole feel of the school dining hall, but also positively affected manners and behaviour in general.
For a while, in those early days between 2003 and 2006 (with more awards following e.g. BBC Food and Farming Award, The Observer Food Monthly Award) we were perhaps the most positively publicised school in the country for the work we were doing. Mr. Maddison was overwhelmed to be awarded a Blue Peter Badge(!) and then to find his school filling page 43 of the 2007 Blue Peter Annual. It was such fun to be able to entertain Jamie Oliver in school on two consecutive Wednesdays (and to see aspects of school appear in his best seller Jamie's School Dinners). It was very encouraging to be involved in shaping government policy and to be able to help other interested schools. It was tremendous to witness the growing stature and national profile of our Cook Mrs. Orrey, eventually recognised in her St. Peter's based book 'The Dinner Lady', which became the second best seller in the country selling over 100,000 copies (still available and still a good read, especially if you want some good, wholesome, healthy meals to cook not for your children, but with them).
More than anything, though, we continued to value and improve our service on behalf of our own children. Moreover this wasn't about something so way out that no-one else could possibly achieve it, it was rather merely 'tweaking to transform'. We discovered ways that any school, providing the Headteacher was willing (with a cook on board as well) to recognise and invest in the positive benefits an improved and vibrant dinner culture could bring to their school as a whole, could easily change the nature and quality of chidlren's lunch time experience. (I believe that once any Head gets involved dinner take up itself will immediately increase by at least 10-20%. You might want to test the theory!) Obviously the first thing we did was improve the quality of the food, but after that it was simple things. Table cloths (wipeable plastic with pictures of fruit and veg on if possible or just simply colourful) came to have a symbolic as well as practical quality (i.e. this was not simply a hall you were entering, it was a place for eating together), the salad bar came to influence children's healthy food thinking even if they didn't always use it, sandwich children (a diminishing number) being allowed to sit with those eating school meals meant that children didn't have to change to sandwiches just to sit with their friends, not allowing pupils to 'go out' as soon as they had finished slowed the pace of eating down and helped improve manners and habits. Insisting sandwich eaters had a plate (rather than eating out of a box) also helped with this. Running our own in-house service meant that we could invite staff to eat for free, whilst incurring no extra cost to the school.
We also became confident enough in our service and environment to make it possible for parents and grandparents to share dinners with their children on any day providing they booked in before 9:30am. Older children gained more opportunity to support younger children and we were also able to start a luncheon club for senior citizens (on roast day) as a further part of our approach to 'active citizenship' (i.e. growing citizenship through putting young and old together in real situations). We emphasised the importance of 'dinners sometimes' i.e. if you can't stay everyday, try to stay at least once a week (there's important learning for your children it). We subsidized the dinners for our youngest children to make the point to parents of the social educational value we attached to eating together. We invited Pre-School/Nursery to join us.
Then, perhaps more than anything, we found the power in sending menus home every week. This meant that, each weekend, children and parents began sharing in regular 'food conversations', discussions that over time/years, helped children to become far more food aware and articulate. Far more mature in their understanding and in the informed choice we hoped we were growing in them. Moreover, children and parents liked menus in hardcopy, not simply on email. How can we be sure this is such a small, but important part of the whole school dinners culture we are creating? When we only sent our menus out by email or when we forgot to send menus out at all, our weekly uptake fell by over 20%!
In the end we realised that our meal times could bring more meaning to our curriculum and our curriculum could bring meaning to dinners and it's merely 'tweaking to transform'. How hard is it to ask about 'The Very Healthy Caterpillar' or design a Healthy Party Menu or for Y6's to design a Healthy Picnic' for Y1 or Y2 for Nursery? More than anything though, it just made that important middle to the day go better and school as a whole improved.
Over the years, therefore, we have continued to value, promote and develop our service. Our Catering Staff are an integral and valued part of the whole school team and very much as one with our Midday Supervisors. We are more than willing to share our vision for school dinners and help others to 'tweak to transform' (both in terms of the dining room experience or curriculum) if they are interested.
Moreover, whilst the national average for school meal uptake hovers around 44%, we serve over 80% on a daily basis (with over 200 parents joining us for Christmas dinner on our busiest day!)
The last 13 years have proved an exciting and extremely rewarding journey and now, once again, we find a new government recognising the importance of the school meal experience (linked to a broader approach to Health). They have just announced free school meals for infants and with this, I am sure, the school dinner culture (linked to our 'Health/PE Curriculum') will almost certainly become a new focus of Ofsted. So why not make it fun, it is worth it and not that hard to make a difference.
In this context and wondering if we had actually kept anything significant going over such an extended period it was, therefore, a thrill to receive a visit to school from Henry Dimbleby who is the author of the government's meritorious 'School Food Plan' and for him to later write in a card that his visit had been 'inspirational' (as he was to us).
It really is worth investing in school dinners, the positive culture it can generate and the way done well (and simply) it can enrich both school life and pupils lives as a whole. As for me, I'm off to lunch, after all its not only Cooks that should serve their children!