Our anonymous blogger is a Teach First teacher in an inner-city school. These are their individual views.
As children, we battled with my mum over certain “brain foods” she deemed vital. Fish was my nemesis, forcing me to think creatively and come up with various strategies that allowed me to get the nasty stuff down with minimal chewing or tasting. My younger brother was even worse than me and practically cried every time we were served vegetables. We still joke about the day he sobbed, choked down part of a roasted pepper and then emptied his stomach onto his plate.
Why did we eat what we didn’t like? We did it because my mum had cracked behaviour management and was in it for the long game. She was able to see that making us unhappy and fighting with us in the moment would be worth it in the end. She understood how teaching us to eat properly would benefit us as adults whilst eating healthily would boost our performance at school.
Not all parents are this strict and children invariably come to class unable to concentrate or perform simply because of diet. Sugar is a major criminal in this ongoing battle between diet and performance. Just as the NHS is flagging up the looming diabetes crisis due to mass sugar consumption, schools are finally becoming aware that sugar has taken to central a place in the diet of those they teach.
This summer I spent time teaching in Norway in a summer school that is part of an annually government funded programme. One of the simplest yet most striking characteristics of this programme is the fact that all of the courses are sugar free. This means that they aren’t allowed to bring any sugary food or drink for lunch or buy anything sugary whilst there. The statement it makes is very simple: added sugar is detrimental to learning.
My fellow British colleagues and I only stumbled across this rule after 4 days of teaching. We were sitting outside in the playground discussing whether or not we wanted an ice cream badly enough yet to spend £4 on one when the assistant head of the school casually reminded us that no ice cream was to be bought on the sight-seeing tour we were leading the next day.
‘The sugar-free rule includes school trips.’
‘Oh dear,’ one colleague murmured into my ear, ‘I’ve been rewarding my kids with Maoams. Every time they speak I chuck another one at their head.’
The system seemed straightforward: they simply sent a letter to parents and before their child attended they had to sign an agreement slip. The thing was we had noticed a difference before we were aware of the rule. Students had been showing me their lunches and we’d all commented on how we’d not seen any junk food. Once I realised there was a rule I didn’t have to remind a single child. A lot of the pupils I taught didn’t really like any of the things British children see as basic food sources. Things like chips, crisps, chocolate and coke never featured on their favourite food lists. Every single student, when asked to list their favourite foods, said things like meat, cheese and fruit.
As a nation, Norway is incredibly vital and healthy. The stereotype of beautiful, robust individuals certainly seemed to hold true and it became almost a challenge to find an overweight Norwegian. A culture of healthy eating and exercise is firmly embedded and children are growing up aware of how food impacts their quality of life. Although “sugar-free” schools as a blanket strategy don’t exist across Norway yet, during the actual school term student’s lunches are still monitored. Teachers look to see what they are eating and if the food isn’t substantial or healthy enough they phone home to gently remind the parents that their child needs a good lunch in order to concentrate and perform in school. They don’t have canteens in Norway although there is apparently a great deal of discussion now going on about the need to introduce them to provide students with a hot meal in the middle of the day. Despite monitoring packed lunches, schools are keen to have an even bigger positive say in what their students consume. For them this focus on schools lunches is not an “as well as” duty to their roles as teachers but an integral part of their job as educators. With Norway creeping up the league tables, currently 19th in the OECD’s world education report, and now performing higher in reading and maths than the UK, which currently ranks in 11th place, clearly something is working. Could it be as simple as nutrition? All of the teachers I talked to seemed to believe that it is a big part of it. When I described the typical lunch and daily diet of the pupils I taught they were horrified. Shaking heads and exclamations of “why is nobody stopping it?” met every truthful recount that I told.
Why is nobody stopping it in Britain? All this talk of educational reform and yet what is needed, really, is a total reboot of our countries attitude towards the role of food in education. Perhaps Nick Clegg’s latest announcement concerning free school meals is the beginning of this change. But if so they need to be more than just fillers; they need to be consistently nutritious.
Asking to monitor student’s lunches, banning sugar from school and reinventing school dinners so that chips and pizza rarely feature would be enormous, some say impossible, tasks. There would be complaints possibly from all sides as well as the possibility of upsetting families who really are trying to provide but losing in the tough economic climate. Yet if we are really going to begin to alter the way our children learn for the better we need to accept that a war is imminent and then get on with it. Part of a successful education is providing life skills, so surely we as educators need to be following down the path Norway has already driven down. Just like my mum did when I was child, we need to play bad cop, hated by many but secure in the knowledge that the message we are enforcing will benefit all in the end.