Ronan Harte: “Schools have a responsibility to give pupils the absolute best”
Food for thought
Ronan Harte, Holroyd Howe MD, discusses the role food can play in the future of independent schools
Posted by Dave Higgitt | March 03, 2015 | Catering & hospitality
Ronan Harte, Holroyd Howe, catering, independent, schools, health, obesity

How many of you remember lumpy semolina in all its glory – topped with a large dollop of synthetic strawberry jam, scooped out of a factory sized plastic tub? It really should have come with a warning and it might also bring back memories of Jam Roly Poly, liver and bacon, Smash potatoes, and Spam fritters.

This is what our school dinners consisted of 30 years ago and in some cases, even 10 years ago. A time when school meals were something to be feared and endured - perhaps even a family rite of passage. And whilst they may have been filling, their nourishment was dubious to say the least.

And soon this fear turned into joy, as chips, turkey twizzlers and potato smiley faces started to pop up at schools across the nation. But while many school children may have rejoiced, the reality of our school dining rooms turning into reproductions of the fast food restaurants that plague our streets had a devastating impact on our country’s overall health and wellbeing.

Our culture of eating went into cardiac arrest and needed some serious resuscitation. The good news is that things have really started to change in the last 10 years. But we’re not there yet. Health and wellbeing are still top of mind when it comes to any discussion around food. Not just in schools but at home and on our streets, and on a national level, I think we all know there is still work to do. And one thing I think we must be careful to remember is that even now, even as leaders in the education sector, we cannot predict the whole future.

So what I’d like to explore is the question of how we create a catering solution that results in healthy children, healthy businesses and a healthy future. And I’d like to share ways in which we should be structuring, and benefiting from, catering within our schools. 

Our healthy revolution

With the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution, we have seen the humble school dinner come under the media microscope, even in independent schools. And with headlines screaming of e-coli in schools and the horse meat scandal, the catering community at large has come under increasing scrutiny.

A really good school catering service, whether it’s run by a company like ours, or self-operated, will have a conscience about the food it serves. Traceability, locally-sourced, British, fresh, nutritious… These are all critical benchmarks of school food today.

But how many schools can say 100% confidently that they are serving local, fresh, British produce, with high nutritional value and total traceability? I’m sure none of your schools have been serving horse meat burgers over the last few years but let’s be honest, that is an extreme, and we cannot really judge ourselves by that standard. It really comes down to knowing that your eggs are free range, your milk is fresh, that your meat has high welfare standards, your fish is sustainably sourced, and that your vegetables have not been flown in from Kenya but grown with care by British farmers.

With so much to consider just in choosing ingredients, let alone the issues around health and safety and staff training, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a 40% increase in the number of schools outsourcing their catering. The pressure on you, and your long-suffering bursar, is undoubtedly at its highest! And someone has to be accountable. I imagine you would agree that this is a something you would all prefer to avoid…

Interestingly, at last year’s HMC conference, Head Master, Mark Turner, at Shrewsbury School told me that not only did his decision to bring us in remove the headaches of managing his catering, but more importantly, as a new head, it made him a hero in the eyes of his pupils.

And what about health in its most literal sense? We all know that fresh, nutritious meals will support the immune system and help to keep our pupils healthy. Sugar and salt content are also high on the agenda when it comes to healthy eating, as the levels of both in food in general has reached terrifying heights. And what’s truly amazing is that so many people don’t even know it’s there.

We recently launched a ‘Half-measures’ initiative that literally cuts in half the amount of sugar used in foods. In one school, we reduced weekly sugar consumption by 20 kilos. And have the pupils noticed? Are they queuing up at the kitchen door to complain? Of course not. They haven’t a clue. But we know, and the school knows, and the parents know. And bear in mind, we were already a low sugar and salt business to begin with.

These are the sort of changes that will help us keep pupils healthy, and ultimately ensure your school is providing the highest standards of health and wellbeing. 

And beyond all of that we must also consider the academic impact of healthy eating. Children with diets lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids tend not to perform academically, lack concentration, and have been cited to be more disruptive in the classroom.

In a school environment, concentration levels and energy levels are key, especially when we all know that sporting success is an important part of independent school life. With a full-on sporting calendar, children need to have the right fuel to maximise their efforts in the sporting arena. 

The importance of food education

I think you would all agree that a school’s main purpose is to prepare our young people for life after school. Both in the immediate, at university, and longer-term, in their careers. This preparation will undoubtedly cover academic learning, social skills, sporting ability (leading to team spirit) and self-discipline. But how much time is spent on preparing pupils for the landscape of food after school?

Well that landscape is pretty bleak. The UK now has the highest rate of obesity in Europe, playing a close second to America on the global scale. Not a position we should relish. And the financial impact of obesity is estimated to become an additional £45 billion per year by 2050 with a seven-fold increase in NHS costs alone.

Well it’s hardly surprising in a country where fast food has become a lifestyle choice, packaging loopholes mean low-fat can mean higher sugar levels than full-fat, and clothing sizes have been increased to meet our ever-growing waistbands. Acceptance on that level is, in my view, utterly depressing.

The independent schools sector is responsible for producing many of the country’s leaders, decision makers, politicians, doctors and law-makers. So we find ourselves in the midst of a national (or should I say, global) health crisis, and without your schools giving your youngest the right start in life, with the right diet, food education, and cooking skills, we are sitting on a health, and social, time-bomb.

One thing I think we should all remember when talking about food in schools is that a pupil could spend up to 250 days school in a boarding environment each year. That means eating up to four meals a day there. Just think how many bad food habits these children and young adults could pick up in that time. And conversely, the many positive habits we could equip them with.

And this is where my role becomes really interesting. Because not only does a school catering team have the responsibility to feed its pupils, in my opinion it also has the responsibility to educate them about food. That is what makes a good school catering service excellent. And isn’t that what all of us are striving for? Excellence in everything, together.

Providing a nutritious meal for your pupils is no longer enough. We need to give them the skills to do it for themselves and instil a sense of responsibility in our young people. To make sure they are not reliant on pre-prepared foods, and understand the personal achievement of growing, cooking and feeding themselves and others.

But you can’t cook if you don’t know where food comes from. And you can’t feed yourself healthily if you can’t identify good food from bad.

I definitely believe that early intervention will affect later educational outcomes. Let me give you some examples of our experiences of implementing change in some of your schools.

With some, we have been building kitchen gardens and teaching even the youngest how to grow vegetables and herbs, as well as how to turn them into healthy meals. I was recently at Trinity School in the centre of Croydon that’s growing strawberries and herbs to use in their school meals.

We all know from our own experiences of school meals, however many years ago, that there is nothing worse than boiled-to-death cabbage. No wonder the last three or four generations have spent more money on pizza and ready meals than on fresh fruit and vegetables. When children are first eating vegetables and they not only taste delicious because they are well-cooked, but they also have the satisfaction of growing their own, “eating your greens” doesn’t seem to be such a hardship.

Other schools have really seen the benefit of cooking lessons for their pupils. When we first started running cookery lessons at one school, one of our chefs watched in amazement as a boy tried to peel a raw egg. He was 16 years old and had never cracked an egg. His mum can now rest assured that her son won’t be living on pot noodles when he makes his way to university.

Cooking lessons, gardening, farm visits, bake-offs, harvest festival… all of these things will help to educate your pupils about food and give them lasting life skills. 

Healthy children for a healthy business

These two areas certainly interconnect. September saw a new era for school food in the state sector with free meals for infants, cooking on the curriculum and new school food standards. 

With the rising pressures of government legislation on the state sector to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their pupils – coupled with the increase in the availability of free school meals – we see an increase in parents’ expectations.

Recently, a state run school in Manchester recruited two award-winning chefs to its catering department and is now offering a restaurant experience to its pupils!

And to emphasis this point, I refer to a study on what parents thought about school meals and the food chain, which was commissioned by the NFU during National School Meal Week late last year.

The stats say it all:

  • 76% of parents felt food should be sourced in Britain, wherever possible. 87% of them felt that at least half of the ingredients in British school meals should be procured from British farms.
  • Not only that, but 88% of parents thought it was very important that their children were taught about how food is produced on a farm, and where it comes from, as part of the school curriculum.

This just shows how the wider society’s attitude towards food in schools has shifted.

Independent schools are increasingly having to justify their fees, and demonstrate value in all areas, including the dining room, to keep up with the enormous changes currently in play in the state sector, and in an evermore competitive independent sector.

Here’s some food for thought. One independent school we met recently is seeing 20% of its pupils skipping supper in the school, instead choosing to visit local restaurants. That’s 20% of the school’s parents paying for meals their children aren’t eating. It also means no one can control what sort of food those children are eating.

Another school told us that a poll had revealed 72% of their pupils are currently dissatisfied with their school meals. Imagine the impact that’s having.

I think if any school thought 72% of their pupils were dissatisfied with the teaching standards or sporting facilities, big changes would be made very quickly!

I must quickly add - these are not schools we currently work with! 

And the catering department can’t be any different. Especially when it’s the second highest cost for a school.

I recently visited Dr Richard Maloney, at Bede's School, who has undertaken a major rejuvenation programme over the last 12 months across the school, from bringing us in to manage the catering, to new buildings and facilities. He now describes himself as Head Master, architect, design and head of DIY… I’m sure you can all empathise.

Anyway, my point is that, with all these changes, Richard believes the change that has made the biggest impact on his pupils has been fixing the food.

And when I’m talking about changes, these not only need to manifest themselves in the food we serve – for example, responding to the new allergen legislations.

But also in the way we serve it. And by that I mean the social experience of dining in independent schools.

We should never under-estimate the importance of our children eating meals together. For many nowadays, it may be the only time of day that they sit and eat as a group, with breakfast on the run and supper often taken in isolation from late-working mums and dads. When it comes to boarders, the dining hall should have a home-from-home feel, especially for your international pupils, who are so far from home.

And for our younger pupils in nursery and pre-prep, your school becomes responsible for instilling good social etiquette, teaching them how to hold their knives and forks properly, as well as key social skills. They are not learning from the school, they are learning from each other.

These skills create valuable social currency for your pupils. And really it all comes down to the culture and ethos of the dining room – a culture and ethos that is dictated by a school itself, and should be carried through by its catering team.

Moving into more obvious commercial waters, one of the last things I’d like to explore is the additional opportunities an excellent catering department presents, as more and more independent schools begin to extend their offering.

Sixth-form cafes, summer schools for international students, and conferences and weddings all provide additional revenue streams that will, in turn, allow schools to reinvest in those critical areas, like new school buildings and improved facilities. We know as well as you do that the costs for this type of development are extremely high, but the ends, in terms of your recruitment, can certainly justify the means. And with a catering team in place that you trust to deliver excellent standards of food, while taking full accountability for health and safety, food hygiene, and staffing, these extras become easier to deliver, and more profitable. 

A healthy future

So what will the future of independent schools look like when it comes to food?

The future of independent schools as a collective topic is increasingly interesting, but we have to consider the future of each independent school on an individual basis. And for me, that’s the way we are going to make sure that food is helping you all achieve a healthy future.

We have to work together to introduce changes that not only combat these issues of health and well-being, government legislation, and adding value for parents, but changes that suit your school’s specific needs. Regionality, school traditions and culture, your financial position, and specific pupil requirements, all dictate the type of catering service your school will benefit from.

However, the fundamental changes we need to make stay the same. Health and wellbeing, academic excellence and creating more commercial opportunities are the things every school strives for, and I hope you will agree with me that food plays a very important role in securing the healthy future we all want. Not least from a parent’s perspective, for whom we know that food is a key criteria when judging a school’s standards of pastoral care.

At the end of the day, schools have a responsibility to give your pupils the absolute best.

And remember, it is your school. No matter what you decide to do, self-operated or outsourced, you should retain sovereignty over one of your most important departments.