Mrs May, can we talk about school lunches?

My eldest boy started school in September 2014 – just when the free school lunches for infants started.

He will end his time at infant school this summer, just as the free lunches look set to end. He is the free-school-lunches boy.

You should come and meet my biggest boy sometime, Mrs May. Come and see him as he pores over the menu for the term, committing each option carefully to memory. Come round on a Monday as he gleefully exclaims ‘mmmmm, traditional chicken pie with mixed vegetables today – yum’. Come over one weekend and listen as he begs me to make ‘Scotty meatloaf’, just like the one they have at school. Hear him talk about the superiority of school’s cabbage over mine. Come over at 3pm one day, Mrs May, and watch my three little boys running out of school desperate to be the first one to tell me what they had for their lunch – ‘sticky chicken with rice AND pasta AND carrots AND cucumber AND sweetcorn and BANANA MOUSSE for pudding! WITH SPRINKLES!’ Come over at breakfast time and listen to the 6 year old advising his brothers on the best lunch choice of the day – ‘don’t go for the jacket potato today, ok…..not when you can have roast beef!’

You should come and visit our little school sometime too, Mrs May – come and meet our lovely school cook. Come and watch her at the beginning of the day, setting up in the kitchen and waving to the children as they arrive. Come and ask her how she feels about serving the children a good lunch every day. Let her tell you about the children – she knows them all by name. She’ll tell you about this little one who loves Wednesday roast, and that little one who polishes off every last bite and then asks for seconds. Come along to school and ask her about the recent jacket potato competition, which asked the children to come up with ideas for their perfect jacket potato filling – the winning entries were served for lunch later that week. Speak to the teachers……ask them how excited the children were as they brought their entry forms into school on the Monday. Ask the cook what ideas the children came up with and which entries were the winners. Such a good idea, don’t you think Mrs May? An idea that got the children to be creative and to think about food. An idea which included every child, without anyone having to remember to bring in their lunch money, or worrying that their parents wouldn’t want to pay for a school lunch that day.  It was so successful that they’d like to involve the children more regularly in menu planning. I know, isn’t that great?

Come and meet my boys, Mrs May…..meet my boys, their friends, their teachers and the school cook. Come and meet them, and then tell me you’re taking away free infant school lunches.

I’m not pretending that my boys wouldn’t have school lunches now if they weren’t free – they would. Paying for them would make a big dent in my salary, but I would still do it. I would pay because I like the variety that is served at school. Because I think a hot lunch is better for them than the uninspiring sandwiches I would probably make. And because I like that they sit down as a school community and eat a proper meal. So you might be wondering what my problem is, Mrs May, when I would be willing to pay and when I know that those below a certain income threshold would still be entitled to a free hot lunch. My problem is this – that we have the chance to do this one small thing which can help give children, all children, regardless of income or whether or not their parents want to pay for school lunches, a positive start to their school lives. It is not dependent on whether they fall into the right income bracket, or whether their parents want to pay for it, there is no ‘free school meals’ stigma; it is just what they are all entitled to. A proper lunch in the middle of the day.  All of them, at this crucial age, can get excited about roast dinner Wednesday, or pizza on Friday, or banana mousse or biscuits with sprinkles or sticky chicken or Scotty meatloaf….whatever that may be. (I must admit, I’m not too sure.)

And you’re talking about taking that away.

Please, Mrs May, please don’t tell me that providing breakfast will have the same positive results as the free lunches. Because the good thing about lunch, Mrs May, is that the children are already in school; and so are the staff. And don’t tell me that this is the only way that money can be put back into dwindling school budgets either. Because if your only way of funding schools properly is by taking school lunches away from 4-7 year olds then there is something seriously wrong.

One country I always enjoy reading about, Mrs May, is Finland – you know, that country with the really successful education system. In fact, as well as making some time to meet my boys and the school cook, I wondered whether you might find the time to pay a little visit to Finland? Because they just seem to have schooling and education and yes, even the lunches right. You see, Mrs May, in Finland every child of compulsory school age is entitled to a free school lunch. Every child. The Finnish National Board of Education says:

Finnish school legislation guarantees a well-balanced meal for each pupil every school day. The objective is to maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work. (http://www.oph.fi/download/47657_school_meals_in_finland.pdf)

The rationale behind this is probably very simple – children learn better when they’ve had a proper lunch. And ultimately, surely it pays off to invest in education and in our young people? Doesn’t it?

So come and see us sometime, Mrs May. And then perhaps go and have a look at how they do things in Finland. And maybe after that, we can talk again about school lunches.

Primary school kids at a table in school cafeteria, close up

The (Reception) year that was

It’s the last week of the eldest boy’s first year at school, and it has been the biggest (and probably best) year of his little life so far. If you read my last post about school, you’ll know that I have found the rather frenetic pace of school life challenging to say the least. This term alone there’s been bring a bottle day, bring a jazzy jar day, the school disco, sports day, the summer fair, collections and parties for the soon-to-be-retiring Headteacher, a cake bake and more. With at least one event a week to keep up with as well as the logistics of getting to and from school, Reception has been more of a struggle than I anticipated.

My boy, however, has sailed through and absolutely loved it.

Just over 2 years ago, his nursery told me they were concerned about how quiet he was. I had no worries of my own about my little boy – yes he was very shy, he had never been immediately outgoing around other children, but at home he chatted away non-stop, was affectionate and had adjusted very well to the arrival of his little brothers. But my worry was this – he was due to start school just over a year later and, as an August boy, would be one of the babies of the class. If nursery thought he was ‘behind’, how was he going to cope with the jump up to school?

I needn’t have worried. From day 1, my little boy has skipped happily into school, settling into his new environment and soaking up absolutely everything; proving what I had often suspected – that targets and tick-boxes for pre-schoolers do very little apart from cause parents to worry. Not only did he throw himself into his new routine with huge enthusiasm, but rather impressively he now has an excellent grasp of how to run a successful infant school and has set up his own version at home, with two particularly disruptive pupils. As well as introducing his little brothers to Phonics and Literacy, he is also doing an effective job of running the administrative side of things: collecting up lunch choices, reporting absences to the school office and arranging last minute supply teachers.

The strides he has taken in his learning have been staggering. He has gone from struggling to hold a pencil properly to writing whole paragraphs; from sounding out words to being able to read most of the books on his bookshelf. School seems to have opened his eyes to a whole world of learning – the Ice Age, where egrets can be found, the diet of piranhas; his thirst for knowledge can be exhausting, particularly as the topics that interest him most are those about which I know virtually nothing.

And who’d have thought there was so much joy to be had from a school menu? For the last few months, the soundtrack to Herts menumy life has been the 4 year old reading out Hertfordshire Catering’s menu choices time and time again. Not at all distracted by his brothers climbing up bookcases and flinging themselves off sofas, he continues undeterred: ‘Southern style Quorn burger with diced potatoes, ribbon vegetable chow mein, home-style lasagne with side salad…..’. Even the 2 year olds are now familiar with the three week rotating menu.

He has now moved onto creating his own menus, which yesterday I found covering every available surface so that our living room resembled an extremely colourful version of Hertfordshire Catering’s Head Office.

Aside from his obsession with the school menu, what has struck me the most has been his increased confidence. I doubt he will ever be the most outgoing child in the class; but rather than sticking to my side at birthday parties as used to, he now runs off without hesitation to join in with all the games. Almost as much a milestone for me as him starting school was dropping him off for his first disco – yes really, a disco for 4-6 year olds. I watched my little boy as he ran down the corridor to the hall, and he didn’t look back once. I felt the tears come but quickly pulled myself together, realising that it was quite ridiculous to be crying at the doors of a school disco.

My little boy is not the only one to have loved this year. It’s true, jazzy jars are not my strong point, and I definitely lack patience when faced with three tired boys to walk home at the end of a school day; but actually, I love school too. We moved here six years ago, but it has only been this year that I have really started to feel a part of the community. It has been a year of new friendships, of looking forward to school gate catch ups with other mums as 2 year olds (usually mine) throw tantrums over dropped gingerbread men, and of realising that I am surrounded by a wonderful group of supportive parents, many of whom have helped me pull myself together outside the school gates as I’ve made it quite evident that I have more children than I can competently handle.

So School, whilst I will enjoy my 6 weeks without any jars to fill, costumes to create or slips to return, I will miss you over the holidays. I’ll miss catch ups with friends at the gates and I’ll miss chasing twins around the playground; but most of all I’m sad that what has been a wonderful year for my little boy is almost over.

Thankfully, though, the at-home version of school is sure to be in full-swing over the holidays, complete with the full range of Hertfordshire Catering’s lunch choices.

school run