Forgive me for what I said when I was hungry…

Tim Wilbur, Director of Schools Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, looks at school dinners – past and present

Whilst reading a recent article on school food, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of discomfort in my stomach; the first thing that came to mind was tepid congealed semolina pudding! I need you, if you can, to cast your mind back to state school meals over 40 years ago. For those of you who are still with me, picture the scene …

It is lunchtime and there are four boys playing football. The bags that make the goal are quite close to the school buildings for all who need to see. Somewhat mysteriously, however, as the lunch hour progresses, the bags get further away to the point they disappear around the corner of the playing field. Towards the end of the lunch period, they equally mysteriously return closer to the school. The big question is: has anyone noticed they have missed lunch? The boys managed to get away with this ruse for a few days before they were caught.

But were school meals really this poor they had to be avoided at all costs? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” The congealed semolina was a very real threat. In fact, every item of food was congealed as it had travelled seven miles from the kitchens in the local town and was reheated on site. Compare this story with the à la carte dietary offerings many of our young people receive today. Things have most definitely changed for the better.

As a headmaster some 30 years later, I suggested to my governors that, in line with other boarding schools, we should perhaps think in terms of turning our venerable tuck shop into a state-of-the-art student café. It was not only all the rage at the time but it also gave the school the opportunity to be more aware of the nutrition agenda that was correctly sweeping schools. Discussions progressed. Then, to everyone’s surprise, they took an exceedingly interesting turn. The boarding students, particularly the overseas students who were inveterate denizens of a very high-class local pizzeria at the weekends, took a hand. Somehow, they managed to persuade the Italian family who owned the establishment to make an unsolicited bid for the proposed café. To cut to the chase, the school gained a first-class eating establishment open after lunch and in the evenings, either side of school dinner. The real boon was its attraction during the week to day parents. Quite often they would collect their offspring after extra-curricular activities and feed them prior to taking them home. The advantages to the senior school boarders, and to the staff who cared for them, was they no longer had to leave the site every weekend to get a treat. The school was very fortunate that the owners of the pizzeria were accepting of the fact that they could not directly compete with the school kitchens during designated meal times. However, a good many of the students did have two meals when the hunger pangs were at their most intense.

Needless to say, there were not too many disappearing goalposts on the playing fields in the latter scenario. And to finish that particular story, the four boys were put into detention for their troubles. In fact, they were escorted from lunchtime detention into the lunch queue. They all knew which was the worse punishment!

Tim Wilbur was headteacher at various independent schools, including Acting Head at Sutton Valence in 2000 and Head of Rossall 2001–2008. 


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