Compulsory cookery: another half-baked idea

Teaching children how to cook should be about taste and pleasure - but the UK government is only interested in obesity, salt intake and telling us how to live.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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From September 2008, secondary schools with cooking facilities will have to teach practical cookery to every 11- to 14-year-old. The remaining 15 per cent of schools without such facilities will be expected to teach the compulsory classes by 2011. Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, explained the rationale for compulsory cookery lessons: ‘Teaching kids to cook healthy meals is an important way schools can help produce healthy adults.’ (1) Pupils will learn to cook a variety of dishes, including a ‘top eight’ of healthy recipes, officials said. Cookery is undoubtedly a worthwhile activity that should be passed down to the next generation, so why do Balls’ proposals sound more like a cause for indigestion than celebration?

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was right when he complained that, ‘just six months ago, ministers promised heads greater flexibility in the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds… Now they have fallen at the first fence, creating another entitlement and more compulsion for this age group.’ (1) Indeed, when it comes to education, no other government has so over-egged their interference in the teaching profession, or turned up the heat so high on what schools should force-feed their pupils. So alongside ‘citizenship’ classes, compulsory key skills, environmental ‘awareness’ initiatives and proposals for ‘money management skills’, educationalists now have to add salad making skills to their ‘must do’ timetable. At this rate, will there be any academic nutrition left on the menu?

As it happens, cookery lessons can be an enriching feature of the school timetable. Where once, as a part of a gendered curriculum, ‘home economics’ might have prepared girls for their domestic role, contemporary cookery lessons serve up rather more universal fare. Aside from the enjoyment of creating dishes from basic ingredients, school students learn, for instance, how to co-operate with others. And through food preparation they learn that life is about giving rather than childishly taking. Cookery lessons also provide a little space where secondary school students can develop social skills. It was always rather apt that in the teen-angst film Gregory’s Girl, the romantic plotting and scheming took place in cookery lessons or during lab experiments. When it comes to serving up subtle lessons in independence and social maturity, cookery lessons can play host to all sorts of simmering relationships.

The same, however, cannot be said of Balls’ soggy proposals. Only this government could take something so effortlessly enjoyable and beneficial to school students as cooking and bludgeon it to death with a rolling pin. There isn’t an ounce of genuine enthusiasm, or even a gram of understanding, for the humanistic qualities involved in cookery. Instead the classes in coercive cookery are another sideshow from the irrational ‘war on obesity’ and the banal sermons on health and healthy eating. No doubt Balls’ ideal recipes will be a fixed menu of five fruit and veg a day, small portions and nothing resembling taste and enjoyment. Goodbye toad-in-the-hole and chocolate sponges, and anything that dares to contain salt or fat. Was cookery meant to be as appealing as guzzling cod liver oil?

Indeed, it is striking that the government is so obsessed with food yet shows no real appreciation for it. For Balls and Brown, food is only valued for its nutritional content rather than the sensual pleasure it gives us. Food should be judged on taste, not ‘health’. Officials’ philistine attitude towards food reduces humans to little more than animals, biological entities in need of the right ‘fuel’.

However, there is more to Balls’ coercive cookery lessons than a misguided reading of vegetarian recipes. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick recently observed (see Healthy in mind, body…what about spirit?), healthy eating is now ‘the highest form of ethical virtue recognised in contemporary society’. In this sense, forcing school pupils to take lessons in healthy eating can be seen as part of an attempt to inculcate the new moral and behavioural codes yet further. Tackling the level of obesity amongst the young may be given as the ostensible justification but the policy impulse here is moral. The measures aim to socialise children into accepting that sanctions could arise against them if they don’t follow the government’s lifestyle diktat.

By making healthy cookery classes compulsory, the government is explicitly stating that for future generations, when it comes to deciding what to eat, personal choice will be a thing of the past. Already Ken Livingstone has suggested that mothers feeding their children burgers and chips through school railings should be arrested by the police. How long before food inspectors in supermarkets make sure we’re following the right ‘healthy eating’ plans?

In the past, subjects and aspects of schooling were made compulsory on the grounds that they allowed the next generation to make a worthwhile contribution to public life. Transforming a subject more associated with the home than the world of work or intellectual development into a compulsory subject simply institutionalises the colonisation of our private sphere by the government and state authorities. Far from cookery lessons enriching young people’s experience of the education system, it’s yet another recipe for social control and moral conformity. Surely it’s time to put a lid on lifestyle diktat?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons called for an end to the war on obesity and attacked the packed lunch police. Patrick Basham and John Luik argued that dieting is a waste of time. Dan Travis thought giving children pedometers was a step in the wrong direction. Josie Appleton said there’s more to childhood than counting calories. Or read more at: spiked issue Obesity.

(1) Heads cool on cooking lesson plan, BBC News, 22 January 2008

(2) Compulsory cooking class for pupils, Guardian, 22 January 2008

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Topics Politics


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