Has the time come to lock the school gates at lunchtime?

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Do we need to ban high school pupils from leaving campus at lunchtime to stop them eating junk food, ask Anne Bull and David Key

DAVID KEY

The food that children and young people eat at school has been under the spotlight for some time, following high-profile campaigns by celebrities like Jamie Oliver and nine-year-old Martha Payne’s now famous blog about school dinners.

I think it’s safe to say that parents are more aware than ever of the need for their children to eat a balanced, nutritious diet and that school lunches should help towards this. However, parents are still concerned about what their children eat for lunch, as the survey by the Local Authority Caterers Association has shown.

Some are worried that their older children spend their lunch money on chips and junk food they buy when they are out of the school gates.

This is one of the key issues that will be addressed as part of our new consultation process with parents. For the first time, a parent will sit on the council’s education committee – an important step to make sure that voice of parents is considered when we make decisions about schools. Is closing the school gates at lunch time a viable option? It will be explored as part of this process, along with some other ideas to help get the healthy eating message across.

In Edinburgh, we have a good record of successful healthy eating campaigns throughout our schools and we are always looking at ways to build on this. We try to make our menus as appealing and varied as we can, to encourage a higher take up of school meals. This has contributed towards a recent 5 per cent increase in the number of primary pupils choosing school lunches.

I recognise that we have more of a challenge with secondary pupils and this is something we are eager to address.

Our schools work hard to attract pupils to eat school meals and educate them about the importance of a healthy diet, but parents also have an important role play in achieving this.

I look forward to working with parents as part of our new consultations and to find the best outcome for our pupils.

• Councillor David Key is Edinburgh’s vice-convener of education

ANNE BULL

PARENTS care passionately about what their children eat and they care about keeping them safe. A key finding of our survey is that parents want guidelines ensuring their children have access to healthy and nutritious meals at school – and they want monitoring to maintain these.

As part of this, nearly 62 per cent of respondents to our survey in central Scotland said all secondary students, except those in the sixth year, should be kept in school at lunchtime.

I would argue there are good grounds for headteachers to give this serious consideration.

Some schools have already trialled the idea of keeping pupils at school over lunch and there is evidence to show it is working.

I’ve seen data which indicates keeping kids at school for lunch and making sure healthy, nutritious meals are on offer has helped improve behaviour and attendance issues at those schools that have trialled the approach. Even attainment could be improved eventually.

Yes, there are bound to be challenges – costs, providing supervisors and juggling the different elements of the curriculum – but it can be done and I would argue it’s definitely worth having a pilot to see if keeping children in at lunchtime works at a particular school.

If you have dining room supervisors so that lunch hours for different year groups can be staggered, you create the space, time and the ambience that will encourage kids to stay at school.

The fact that so many parents want guidelines is not to say that they are not happy with what’s on offer in schools currently. From what I have seen, there’s a 84 per cent-plus satisfaction rating across the board with meals that are provided in school. That’s really positive.

I also think it’s interesting that parents want guidelines to make sure that pupils have nutritious meals. I know there are nutritionists who check school menus as part of inspecting standards in Scotland, and that’s something the rest of the UK could learn from.

• Anne Bull is national chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association

The online verdict

What do the mumsnet mothers think of Edinburgh’s school meals?

Groovee, July 5 2012: I’ve tasted dinners at the childrens school and they taste lovely and fresh, but I’ve had pizza before which was like cardboard and horrible having been brought in from another school.

Duck94, July 5 2012: Our school does the cooking on the premises. The food is just junk though. The four-week sample menu (which comes directly from the council) which I have seen features pizza, chips and beans every single week, with macaroni cheese (served with potatoes!) sausage or burger (and even chicken nuggets and fish finger!) based lunches on offer on other days. They’ve done what annoying restauranteurs do, and put down c*** that they think kids will eat, rather than just give small portions of normal food like you’d cook at home. I thought all this had changed post-Jamie!

CatherinaJTV, July 6, 2012: I found the menu choice really desperate and we never let the kids eat them (but we may be snobs).

OwlMother, July 6 2012: One awful day the parents were “invited” to a BBQ-style lunch. The quality of the meat products was so bad that even on my laziest days I never again tried to badger them into school lunches! My mum is a primary deputy head and says that in her school at least, the quality went markedly downhill when the menus ( and purchasing etc) was totally centralised and cooks hours were shortened.