Why is Food Education so Unappetising?
The history of food education, from Domestic Economy to Food Tech. Words by Thea Everett.
Welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. For our fourth week, we have contributions by Lexi Earl, Thea Everett, Will Yates, Katie Randall and Laura Thomas on how policy has, and continues to affect eating and food education in British schools. You can find the whole series here:
In this essay, Thea Everett takes look at food education over the past century produces a portrait of the political ideologies of successive governments, from Victorian paternalism to the Thatcherite fixation on business, and finally the under-resourcing that characterises state education post-2010.
Why Is Food Education So Unappetising?
Subject to endless rebrands, food education has struggled to gain real legitimacy in British schools. Words by Thea Everett.
When I think of ‘Food Technology’ lessons at secondary school in the mid-2000s, the chief feeling I recall is being overwhelmed by mayonnaise. I remember the coleslaw we’d made in class leaking from its Tupperware into my O’Neill backpack; a pasta salad with chunky shards of onion congealing in its box, with so much mayo it had become one mass. Even though food ultimately became my personal passion and my career, ‘Food Tech’ did not instil a love of cooking in me – and I gave it up before GCSE. I decided to investigate its history and its present; has food education always been so unappetising?
Food education in Britain was originally introduced as ‘Domestic Economy’ to state schools in the mid 1800s to ‘help improve basic living standards’ among the working classes, and included needlework and laundry-making alongside cooking. The Victorian origins of the subject have a My Fair Lady-esque feel; women were educated primarily for domesticity, whether as wives or in domestic service roles, depending on their class. Domestic economy was available as a subject only for female students until 1975, when the Sex Discrimination Act made it unlawful to limit access to a subject based on gender (though in reality boys didn’t start to study cooking until much later). Domestic science, as it became known, was centred around teaching core cookery skills: Yorkshire puddings, Victoria sponge, and pineapple upside-down cake all featured (as well as things like how to iron a man’s collar…). The 1970s also saw the introduction of Home Economics BSc degrees and BA courses, which signalled the subject being taken more seriously, despite the gendered nature of food education during the period.
When I was at school, between 1997 and 2010, food education was part of the ‘Design and Technology’ block of subjects – a legacy of the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989, which reclassified the subject and transformed it for the twenty-five years that followed. The rebrand from ‘Home Economics’ to ‘Food Technology’ in the final year of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government shifted the focus from cookery for consumption at home to food production in an industrial and factory context. According to a 2011 episode of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme on the topic, this rebrand was an attempt by Thatcher to give the subject the gravitas of science. She ‘decided that what we needed was not cooks but technologists – people skilled at designing theoretical frozen pizzas, not people who could make a pizza.’ This emphasis on food innovation meant that, in the years that followed, the subjects of cooking and eating were taught with a focus on engineering and capitalist enterprise, instead of pleasure or nourishment.
The New Labour years saw a patchy approach to food education, with no notable policies brought in and a sycophantic Blair leaving celebrity chefs to dictate discourse around food in schools. Blair mainly ran with the Thatcher-era emphasis on industry, adding an entrepreneurial gloss in his 2007 curriculum update, when GCSE students were tasked with considering packaging and labelling as well as target market and evidence of testing ‘a food product which was suitable for mass marketing’. Eat your heart out, Alan Sugar! The exam consisted of two written papers, but no cookery. For pre-GCSE secondary education there was an emphasis on food safety – how to handle knives or a hot pan of water – and science such as how full of protein or carbohydrates certain foods are.
But there was almost nothing about how food tasted or made you feel. Personally, I only remember three food-related lessons at my own primary school during that period. One: watching mould develop on a slice of white bread over the course of a week. Two: making tiramisu with the Italian teacher Chiara, because in some Blairite Europhile haze our controversial headteacher wangled fortnightly Italian lessons for our state primary. And three: visiting Pizza Express to learn how to make dough balls. While novel and somewhat entertaining, these things did not teach me much cookery – a shame, given the joy and confidence that sustained, hands-on learning can give primary-age children.
The Tory–Lib Dem coalition government (from 2010–2015) ushered in a genuinely new era of food education, with a policy in 2014 that made food education compulsory for all children aged 5–14 and an all-new ‘cooking and nutrition’ curriculum that appeared to give the subject unprecedented importance in primary and secondary schools. The policy was introduced on the recommendation of the 2013 School Food Plan, commissioned by Michael Gove and written by food entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Dimbleby. However, while the mandatory teaching of food seemed to indicate a strong commitment to food education, meaningful implementation has been less convincing.
The new curriculum said that by age fourteen all pupils should be able to ‘understand the source, seasonality and characteristics of a broad range of ingredients’ and ‘cook a repertoire of predominantly savoury dishes’. It aimed to instil ‘a love of cooking in pupils’ – a valiant goal. At first glance, all this seemed progressive, with the word ‘love’ replacing the more robotic design-tech language that preceded it. However, nice-sounding ideas have not been backed up by resources. In 2014, when it became compulsory for all primary-age children to carry out practical cooking lessons, 75% of primary schools faced the problem of having no kitchen for pupils to cook in. According to a 2017 study, pupils in more than half of all primary schools receive less than 10 hours of food teaching a year. Often, there is no one teacher responsible for food education in a primary school, and instead nutrition forms part of the science curriculum. Despite the ‘compulsory’ tag, many primary schools leave food education to overworked teachers, who must squeeze it into timetables wherever they can. One Bermondsey-based teacher reported that food education ‘is not something we do much of … we tend to focus on balanced diets … now and then we’ll make something that ties in with a history or religious education topic’.
In secondary schools, food education still sits among the ‘Design and Technology’ subjects and is studied quarterly, on a rota. However, the emphasis of the curriculum has changed since I took the subject in 2004, moving away from the industry and fact-focused elements that previously dominated. The GCSE has lost its ‘Tech’ tag; after an initial, short-lived rebrand in 2014 as ‘Cooking and Nutrition’, it has now been renamed ‘Food Preparation and Nutrition’. The current GCSE places an emphasis on the demonstration of ‘effective and safe cooking skills’, as well as learning about diet, nutrition and a range of cuisines to support pupils with skills for home cooking or jobs in catering. However, D&T education expert Dr HildaRuth Beaumont points out, one of the main intentions of the renewed focus on cooking skills ‘is to equip pupils to choose and cook food that is healthy with regard to combating the obesity crisis’ – a somewhat less romantic idea than the attempt at ‘instilling love’. There is also the problem that students usually have to source their own ingredients for practical assessments, meaning the playing field is not level. A teacher I spoke to recalled a Food Tech class in 2018 at a Deptford school where the exam brief was ‘British food’, so students made fish and chips. One boy brought a whole frozen mackerel, which staff had to help him defrost, skin and fillet before he could even get cooking – he had a time disadvantage in his exam from the get-go.
The cancellation of food as an A-level in 2015 has caused more problems: it has created a dead-end for the subject, evidenced by a decline in the number of students choosing to study the GCSE. When the A-level was removed, one Hackney academy chose to offer a Hospitality and Catering ‘Pathway’ (like a BTEC) instead of a GCSE, as this provided a route into work in restaurants for students who did not want to do a degree. Always oversubscribed, the popularity of the Pathway demonstrates the huge demand for practical food education when there is the promise of a job for students who might want to avoid a debt-ridden university route.
Cooking is one of the most vital life skills, so it is troubling that many children get such a poor grounding in a subject which will profoundly affect their lives. Personally, I didn’t start paying attention to food until I left school to study at university. Far away from family and friends, I found that being in the kitchen, trying to recreate familiar recipes, made me feel calm when big life changes were afoot. It brought me a feeling of fulfilment I hadn’t really experienced before. Shortly after this, I was fortunate to move to Australia, where the national obsession with food and cooking inspired me to consider food as a respected job – something that my food education at school had never done.
I would love to see food classes in British schools being taught with the same access to resources as science or art. I’d love to see the course broken up into modules, with practical lessons combined with theory classes on how food interacts with culture and community, and how food trade and our import and export system works. I’d like food classes to offer a critical look at how we might change our food system to make a healthy diet accessible for all, and not just an individual responsibility. When the food and drink industry, including agriculture (or 'farm to fork food chain') industry employs 4.2 million people in the UK, and agriculture employs a third of people globally, I think we owe it to our children to introduce them to the importance of the subject, and the many opportunities on offer. More than just instilling love, better teaching of food in our schools could see the next generation of British adults equipped to deal with the political challenges facing the food system in years to come. Who knows where that might take us.
Further reading on food education in the UK –
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