School catering staff – recognition they deserve

Written by: Christine Lewis | Published:
Christine Lewis, UNISON

New standards for school catering staff demonstrate the vast array of skills that these vital professionals possess, says Christine Lewis

Professional standards tend to be a mixed bag in terms of complexity and utility. Their development can be a lengthy paper exercise without clarity of purpose.

There are standards for teachers and teaching assistants and a set for school business managers should be finalised by November. Joining the occupational groups with this distinction are school caterers, whose professional standards were launched in July.

The knowledge, skills and behaviours in professional practice of head of kitchen, cook, assistant cook, catering assistant, and midday supervisor are detailed in the standards, which can be found on UNISON's Skills for Schools website.

They were developed by the People1st Sector Skills Council, advised by the School Food Plan Workforce Development Group. So far, so bureaucratic – but it was a good deal more exciting than you would think.

The idea was to make good the commitment to "provide interesting, creative and balanced menus" (School Food Plan, p112) by ensuring staff are in the best possible position to deliver them. What began as a technocratic exercise became animated in discussion about different professional practices and their impact, greatly assisted by the hands-on experience of the group.

We spoke about how the standards should be used to ensure quality in provision of healthy meals for children, enabling consistency and transferability of knowledge and skills. Training and development needs would be easier to identify and progression routes designed. It is hoped that the profile of school catering will be raised alongside other industry sectors.

Accompanying guidance emphasises that the standards are not a tool for job measurement or evaluation, a pay and performance system or another pressure on staff. FAQs (also on the website) have been produced to promote understanding of their purpose.

The effects of forensic study of the different school catering roles has been to expose the broad range of knowledge and skills necessary in food preparation and cooking, but also nutritional knowledge, health, safety and hygiene, and for the lead professional, stock control and procurement, budgeting and finance, technology, safeguarding and confidentiality, team-work, culture and leadership.

The bar is high as staff are expected to take pride in what they create, experiment with new techniques and latest trends, engage with school colleagues, parents and pupils, embrace diversity, and be part of a whole-school approach. This might include helping with vegetable gardens, classroom interactivity or cooking lessons. Among their colleagues are midday supervisors whose professional standards focus on interaction with young diners, looking for signs that they need help, knowing how to provide it within school policies on confidentiality, safeguarding, medical support and behaviour management.

Think of these professionals and the age-old baggage they carry in the "dinner lady" label. At the heart of this triumph is a challenge to the idea that women who carry out catering, cleaning and caring jobs in the public sector perform through hormones rather than learnt knowledge, skills and behaviours. It has been a historic convenience to subsidise services by segregating millions of women in low-paid, part-time jobs and relegating their competence to innate predisposition.

But the cat is out of the bag. School catering staff are exposed as managers, accountants, wielders of industry skills, set within an educational and welfare ethos. What is left now is to give them the recognition and reward that they deserve.

Further information

Download the new Standards via


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