Those with a sense of education history, in this the 150th anniversary year of state schooling, will recall the last time a Conservative government became embroiled in a row over food and drink in schools. During the government of Edward Heath, Mrs Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education. Her term of office in education is generally remembered for two event. As Secretary of State she presided over the conversion of more schools to non-selective education than any other Minister, whilst also raising the school leaving age to sixteen.
However, it was her decision to remove the daily third of a pint of free school milk from pupils that is most often recalled as the defining moment of her term in office at Elizabeth House. The decision gave rise to the great slogan Mrs Thatcher: milk snatcher that was up there with the other food slogans of the era: ‘drink a pint of milk and day’ and ‘beans meanz …’
The milk campaign was brought back to my mind during the present campaign for free school meals to be extended to cover all of the year when schools are not in session. Then, as now, some local authorities decided to intervene. After all, this was time when local government had much more involvement with the day to day running of our schools than is the case now.
At least two authorities, including Hillingdon that is again in the news over free school meals, decided to try and stand out against the decision to remove school milk. They know that they couldn’t provide milk, but lawyers identified that there was nothing in the rules to say that they couldn’t provide other liquids. In one case it was to be orange juice and in the other what was described as a ‘nourishing beverage’. At this distance of time, I cannot recall exactly what was to constitute such a beverage, but I guess it was to be hot in winter and cold in the summer months.
In the end, nothing long-term came of these proposals, and free daily milk during term-time for all except the very youngest pupils disappeared from our schools. Later, as Prime minister, Mrs Thatcher was to preside over the wholesale dismantlement of both the school meal system and the teaching of cookery in the curriculum.
In my earliest days working with trainee teachers, sitting in a double period practical cookery lesson being taken by a 4th Year undergraduate was one of the joys of higher education. Watching Key Stage 4 boys in chef’s whites prepare a buffet for a parent’s evening was another delight. There was a sense of purpose and engagement in a group that might have possibly been disaffected by the Ebacc curriculum.
Although you can now learn to cook using YouTube videos, it isn’t the same as working in a group and is no preparation for a career in catering.
The ingenuity of local government then, as now, knew no bounds. However, far too often today central government is unhappy with such actions. I hope, until the government sees sense on feeding children during the pandemic that local leaders will continue to come up with solutions for their local communities.