This week will see the introduction of the much heralded new school food standards, there will no doubt be lots of press coverage, ministers looking smug in shiny kitchens, there is even a tea towel! And whilst I won’t be commenting on the actual standards, other than to say on the whole these reforms are to be welcomed, we perhaps should be looking beyond the headlines.
It is worth remembering that these changes, in fact the whole school food plan were initiated by Michael Gove as a result of criticisms heaped on him by Jamie Oliver. Mainly that there should be strong food standards that apply to all schools.
In July 2012 Oliver suggested that while Dimbleby and Vincent would do a thorough job, he could not welcome their inquiry. “Now is not the time for more costly reports. Now is the time for action and that doesn’t seem to be what we get from Mr Gove when it comes to school food and food education. This [inquiry] just delays action for another year or more.”
So here we are, the day of the big launch and what has changed as a result of the inquiry?
Are the standards fundamentally different?
Do they now apply to all schools?
Do we have a monitoring regime that is fit for purpose?
What has the school food plan actually achieved on standards?
Has Gove the politician won the day and simply delayed, distracted and denied any changes?
Standards and academies
It is still ridiculous that these new School food standards will not apply to the majority of academies, (which make up the majority of secondary schools). Over 4000 schools and getting on for a million children are exempt from these regulations, which clearly undermines any rational argument these are national standards (Some older academies and some new converters are included).We seem unable to do better that rely on begging Academies to voluntarily apply the standards, personally I think that just smacks of poor policy and desperation.
My understanding is that academies all have separate funding agreements and that in theory each one would need to be amended, but just like Baldrick, David Laws says he has a cunning plan.
Apparently, should the Lib Dems be in power after the election (don’t laugh), they would apply the new standards to ALL schools. Which begs the two questions, how? Why on earth did he not make the changes already?
If this is anything more that political trickery, a minister simply bluffing whilst deferring the problem once again, this time till after the election, then he must explain what exactly he will do and why he failed to do it in 18 months since the SFP recommended new standards.
Jamie Olivers main complain was that school food standards dont apply to academies. For all their good work, the school food plan has failed to make any difference on this fundamental issue.
Consequences of a lack of centralised inspections.
Last month Warwick Mansell highlighted how Ofsted appear to be backing away from a role as schools food inspectors and to be honest, I don’t blame them. Ofsted have enough on their plate trying to look at the quality of education (with varying degrees of success), they are not trained or equipped to look in any depth into school meals. Which means in England we don’t have any organisation empowered to monitor the quality of school meals, the ingredients, the sourcing and sustainability, we don’t check on provision for allergies, healthiness, or that caterers abide by the standards. As far as I am aware, the only statutory checks are those undertaken by the local authorities’ environmental health departments on the school kitchen hygiene.
Which leaves us with a major dilemma on inspections, if not Ofsted, then who?
It is increasingly looking like the Food For Life partnership are positioning themselves for as the guardians of school food standards with their catering mark. To be fair to FFLp, they are filling a gap left by the government who in their wisdom decided against any statutory mechanism for checking school food standards. A bizarre decision, especially given the sudden billion pound expansion in the sector as a result of UIFSM.
They can count on the support of David Laws who said recently “This is our challenge for 2015. I would like to see all schools and their caterers holding – or working hard towards – a quality award like the excellent Catering Mark”
He added “Through the Food for Life Catering Mark, schools leaders are able to choose caterers who are committed to providing fresh, sustainable, locally-sourced and high quality food. This not only provides children with nutritious food, but also provides parents with reassurance that their children are being fed responsibly”.
Not that Food For Life are shy in pushing their own cause. In this letter, sent to all heads, FFLp tell school leaders “if you are considering a change of caterer or renewing your contract, specify that they must hold Food for Life Catering Mark in the tender / contract”. Any head who isn’t sure of the new regulations, might well read this and assume caterers had to have an FFLp award to comply with the new standards.
Truth is they don’t, the government has established its own buying standards and while FFLp is mentioned as one way to help meet the standards the ‘Balanced Score Card for public procurement ‘ published in July 2014 gives clear guidance at no cost.
That a charitable organisation is stepping up to provide some degree of certification is on the whole a good thing, but I have three areas of concern.
Firstly is the fees charged by the FFLp for the Catering Mark certification. It is currently £700 a year (minimum) for an audit.
I fully understand they have running costs, but if their Catering Mark becomes a “must have”, then that is a lot of money. The charging structure seems to benefit the larger players in the industry whilst the small enterprises are paying disproportionately.
Secondly are issues common to any one-off inspection regime; the quality might be fine on the day of the visit (which is agreed, not “no notice”), but that snapshot may not be reflective of the regular service. for example, Chartwells are gold standard caterers, but during the first half of this term, their service in Dorset has been anything but gold standard.
Thirdly is a longstanding concern, that the FFL have too close a relationship with the soil association and are using their position to promote organic food. (For those who don’t know, The soil association are the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation)
I can see no benefits for insisting a minimum 15% of total spend must be on organic in order to gain gold standard. The inclusion of organic adds to costs and does nothing to improve quality. What it does do is raise the profile of organic food and ensure a captive market for those organic farming members of the soil association.
Of particular interest was the view that
“Food For Life and the Catering Mark messaging is given prominence and is becoming the preferred ‘voice’ of the Soil Association”
Also relating back to my initial point “The shift in focus to position the Soil Association as a public health delivery organization rather than the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation”
Before I get screamed at by the FFL people, I am not criticising the fantastic work they do promoting healthy eating and educating children into the benefits of good food. But the organisation seems torn in two directions. Are they helping support their lead partner, the soil association, who were set up by the organic food industry, or are they about certifying food standards?
We should be in no doubt that underlying all this is a concerted opposition to any formal regulation of school food. DfE don’t want the expense of inspectors, they don’t want to be seen to adding red tape or impacting of the free market, FFLp are happily with the status quo to the point they plan to expand both in the school sector and with local authorities, whilst many caterers would welcome a new body with powers, some of the larger caterers dislike the thought of a statutory powers (it is worth noting that In Scotland HMI have an established team of ‘Nutrition and wellbeing Inspectors’)
There are clear issues with the lack of accountability, absence of any overarching quality control, we don’t have the knowledge about what is being fed to our children. Lets not forget that we have seen school caterers closed down by Environmental Health officers for hygiene breaches, heads thinking their school kitchen is fine, when EHOs shut down the service, no end of food scares. I dread to think of what could happen next.
As if to prove my point, this is from Steve Quinn, managing director of Cucina Restaurants, who conceded that if the Government’s nutritional guidelines are followed “to the letter” then every school meal would be well-balanced and rich in nutrients.
“But as we know, good nutrition is about what happens in reality, not what happens ideally,” he said. “For me the main issue is the way in which the guidelines are policed or enforced.”
According to Quinn, “Without effective enforcement, primary school caterers operating on very tight margins may be tempted to cut costs by using lower-skilled staff, poorer-quality, bought-in ingredients as well as by reducing portion sizes”.
Ministers have failed to make any real changes, Academies are still exempt from applying the standards and I believe our children deserve something better.