A model for the new government


The School Food Plan provides a policy model that the new government must learn from, says Christine Lewis

The periodic opportunity to change the fate of the nation has been and gone and we can only make educated guesses about what lies in store. 

The last coalition government rushed through the Academies Act when its feet were barely under the Cabinet table. Most of the education policies that followed were not signalled in a manifesto, but then as a composite of two parties neither had been elected on its programme to govern.

The coalition set out with a crisis-driven narrative. By the October 2010 financial statement, there was a growing confidence that the spectre of financial Armageddon had taken hold and unthinkable cuts became thinkable.

However, one of the rare silver linings of the last five years came in 2014, when free school meals were introduced for infants – a universal social policy. It arose from the School Food Plan, an oasis in its comprehensive concern for the welfare of children and holistic approach to their education.

The focus has been on quality of service, in which the workforce is seen as key to the solution and not part of the problem. Professional standards for school meals staff will be launched this summer which unpick the events in a school kitchen and demonstrate, rising in levels, the different sets of skills and responsibilities that are central to the service.

The standards can be linked to programmes of training and staff development and provide a useful map of required activity for managers.

They also have significance at a symbolic level. There are men in the school catering service, but it is mostly staffed by low-paid, part-time women in the local economy, who have languished under a cloak of invisibility or negative stereotyping. There is an age-old meta-assumption that community services involving cooking, cleaning or care are hormonally driven; a form of oppression that has facilitated the lowest rates of pay and poorest conditions of service.

If jobs are broken down to their constituent parts, the need for learnt skills becomes obvious. Anyone viewing the standards for “Head of Kitchen” will see an array of financial, managerial, technical and professional skills which are in no way innate.

The next stage in the programme is to improve the morale of school catering staff. UNISON will be supporting the project, drawing on its membership to identify their concerns and the barriers they face.

The moral of this story for the incoming government concerns structure and agency and governmental obsession with the former to the detriment of the latter. Changed configurations of providers, regulators, funding, governance and other bodies have been a destabilising merry-go-round of unproven worth. 

It creates sufficient activity to suggest purposeful change and political virility without evidence that it is a solution to acknowledged problems. Resources have been squandered by successive administrations on rebranding and rebuilding the shells of our services at the expense of what is at the heart. 

Staff have been forced to focus on adjustment to ever-changing bureaucratic requirements that have little to do with their vocational mission to nurture and educate. The focus must return to quality of service delivered through communities of practice in community education. This must be resourced and encouraged from the centre, but can only ever be achieved at street-level with cooperative effort. 

The most ambitious education programme would return trust to those who have it in their power to change young lives. The enormous waste of time and energy building the walls of Jericho and policing its inmates could be invested in a broad curriculum and those who deliver and enable it.

Of course there must be the ability to evaluate practice and ensure standards, but this should be framed within environments where leaders, policy-makers and practitioners are all learners. It is a much tougher challenge than simply moving around the furniture.


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