The joyless elitism of Jamie Oliver

After dishing out unsolicited opinions in recent years on turkey twizzlers, packed lunches, sugar and free school meals, all seemingly to the end of flogging books and new TV series, Jamie Oliver is at it again. This time he’s denouncing the humble school cake sale.

The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, together with Sheffield University, has published a report warning that our schools are beset by a ‘culture of high fat and sugary foods used as rewards, in fundraising and in celebrations’. The problem is not, then, greedy kids or uneducated parents, filling their lunchboxes with ‘shit’ – to quote Oliver. The real danger is people like me: teachers. Apparently our dangerous ignorance about food and nutrition is creating an ‘unhealthy food environment at secondary schools, compromising pupils’ ability to make good food choices’.

The mixture of disdain, sanctimony, condescension and cod-science with which this TV chef feels he can address teachers is galling. ‘This major report has studied all the data’, he says, as he calls for everyone to ‘help kids apply food knowledge in the real world’. But whom is more likely to live in the real world? Those who go in front of 30 ordinary young people hour after hour, trying to shape their minds while simultaneously keep them under control, or a multimillionaire restaurateur who dines with prime ministers and calls his children River Rocket and Buddy Bear?

For the students and teachers I know, school life can often be an uphill climb. It can make all the difference to a day when a pupil organises a lunchtime cake sale in aid of the charity skydive she’s doing, or a form tutor celebrates a birthday with doughnuts for the class, or hardworking students are rewarded with a treat. These are lovely moments, vital to a school because they bring everyone together and signal that behind all the authority, teachers are humans who still know what the good life is.

Conversely, Oliver’s vision of education is both elitist and joyless. He talks specifically about helping students who are otherwise ‘struggling’. In other words, there are two types of schools: those full of respectable middle-class children and teachers, people who buy Oliver’s books and chow down on his recipes for cherry-chocolate mousse with double cream and caster sugar, and there are the other schools, the ones full of fat and feral kids and clueless teachers. Oliver isn’t representing ordinary families and teachers. (It turns out the campaign was commissioned by AKO Capital, one of the country’s top investment firms.)

‘Let them eat cake’ used to be the cry of the elites. Now if the investment bankers and celebrity chefs get their way, our children won’t even be able to do that.

Gareth Sturdy is a science teacher in south London and an organiser of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum. Follow him on Twitter @stickyphysics

Gareth will be speaking at the session, ‘Culture and anarchy, 150 years on: teaching the best that is known and thought?’, at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 28 October. Get tickets here.

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