April 13th, 2005

School meal choice is the last thing children need

In the old fairy story of the emperor’s clothes, it is a brave little boy who dares to tell the imperial fantasist and his court toadies that he is naked. In the astonishing contemporary fairy tale of Jamie and the school dinners, the story takes on a quirky reversal: it is a naked young chef who tells the puffed-up fantasists of new Labour that they are deluding themselves, and who makes them look thoroughly ridiculous.

I can’t help finding it all very funny. I agree that children should have healthy food at school, particularly if their parents are too poor, too ignorant or too lazy to feed them properly at home. But one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the ludicrous light that the saga has thrown on our political masters. It is a perfect comic paradigm of new Labour. This is how they do things.

First, having ignored a glaring need for eight years, the government is forced to pay attention to it by a TV celebrity with people (that is, psephological) power. (Oliver flamboyantly exposes the 37p school meal scandal with footage of feral kids who had never seen a courgette.)

Then a self-important crony of the prime minister’s blunders onto the airwaves and makes things much worse, demanding a share of the credit. (Margaret Hodge, the sinister minister for children, claims to have been working with Oliver for more than a year on school dinners.) This foolish boast is exploded. (Oliver’s company says it’s rubbish.)

Then, true to normal form, a cabinet minister proudly announces lots of extra new money. (Ruth Kelly, the new education secretary, announces Labour will pledge £280m to improve school dinners.) Inconvenient hacks cast doubt on this announcement, but the minister clings to her brief. (When asked whether this is really new, extra cash, Kelly insists on GMTV and on the Today programme that it is indeed all brand-new money; her department then makes a statement about “this new investment”, following new Labour’s practice of saying investment when it means spending.)

The hacks’ suspicions are proved right; it soon emerges that there is no new money. (The prime minister is forced the same day to admit on Sky News that the supposedly new money is “of course” part of the overall education budget that has already been announced — does multiple announcement of “funding” sound familiar, anybody?) As ever when in a tight spot, the prime minister plays fast and loose with semantics. (His tendentious, dangling “of course” means quite the opposite, of course.)

Meanwhile the government has announced a new quango. (Kelly has proposed a School Food Trust, which will use up £60m of the not-so-new, new school dinners money.)

At the same time the prime minister embarks on a charm offensive. (Oliver is invited to the inner sanctum of the Downing Street sofa and there is talk of a peerage or a knighthood, which might shut him up.) The government decides to raid lottery money to plug the embarrassing “investment” gap, weeks before a general election. (It then emerges that some of the money — “up to £45m” — for the new quango will come from the Big Lottery Fund.)

Almost every aspect of new Labour bad faith and incompetence is to be seen in this morality tale. The government boasts about raising children out of poverty, it has sprouted ceaseless initiatives for healthy eating, including its five-a-day project to get us to eat our greens, and it is well aware of the crucial importance of nutrition to the development of body and soul.

It has had eight years in office, it has raised taxes to throw money at schools and yet only now — under celebrity duress — does it tackle 37p school dinners. It is contemptible. But the Conservatives are also to blame — they abolished nutritional standards for school meals and allowed local education authorities to cut shameful corners on catering.

In all the fuss, I don’t think anyone has pointed out that the most glaringly obvious thing wrong with school dinners is choice.

Usually I am in favour of choice, weasel word though it has become. But it is breathtakingly absurd to allow schoolchildren to choose from a range of fatty, sugary rubbish and slaughterhouse sweepings. Of course they’ll binge on chips, knacker’s yard burgers and hyperactivity pop if they’re offered a choice; they lack the knowledge and the self-discipline to eat sensibly.

They should have no choice. They should eat the one meal that’s put in front of them, as everyone did when I was at school. It never occurred to me then that we might choose. Every one had to eat the same.

Choice for children leads directly to malnutrition, hyperactivity, obesity, poor health and poor performance. Abandoning choice in this particular case would mean more nutritious meals for everyone, chosen by suitable members of school staff, and also much cheaper catering. Administration and waste would be cut.

The joke is that new Labour, which doesn’t truly believe in choice, has gone about chanting the choice word for so long that it wouldn’t occur to it that a simple, economical solution to this particular problem is to abandon choice. The irony is that choice in school meals, which is the one choice in school life that children should not have, is the only one that they do.

Children cannot expect to go to the school of their (or their parents’) choice. They cannot choose to go to or stay at schools for special needs — such schools are being closed all the time in the face of family protests. They cannot choose to play a lot of sport, or even to play at all — schools are continuing to sell or build on their playing fields, despite new Labour’s many promises.

Children cannot choose to study at their own pace — they are all slung into a single-year group of widely mixed ability, often without any setting or streaming. But they are free to wire themselves up on sugar highs and deprive themselves of essential vitamins and proteins.

Instead we get the inevitable quango — already nicknamed OffScoff. How the spirit sinks. Everyone knows what nutritious school dinners should be and anyone who doesn’t can buy a Jamie Oliver book and follow the instructions. It is all unbelievably simple and obvious.

So what a quango might usefully do apart from clawing pennies away from kiddies’ food remains a mystery; presumably it will produce guidelines and outreaches and consultations, all to be discussed on expensive awaydays, probably with statutory power, not to mention jobs for the public sector boys.

Does this sound familiar? Since coming to power Labour has created well over 100 quangos — quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations — most of which are probably unnecessary and all of which create new red tape, regulation and intrusion. Doesn’t this all too familiar saga — exposed by the naked chef — suggest that what we really have, in a fantasy world of his own, is a naked prime minister.