These control freaks should just tuck off
The Tuckshop Taliban is peeved that its healthy-eating mania isn’t very influential in new academy schools. Good.
Hold the front page! Mobilise the army! Demand an emergency debate in parliament! It has just been revealed that children are still able to buy sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks in some schools! Something must be done…
Yes, as revealed on last night’s edition of the Channel 4 current-affairs series Dispatches, titled ‘The School Dinner Scandal’, not-very-healthy food is available in some schools. Dispatches asked both local-authority schools and academies, which are independent of local-authority control, about their school meals and the availability of what used to be called ‘tuck shop’ foods (‘tuck’ was once a perfectly normal part of school life, but now such snacks and drinks are treated as the equivalent of letting children play with plutonium). It discovered that while ‘tuck’ treats have been banned in local-authority schools, they are available in the newer academies, which have more freedom than ordinary schools do when it comes to deciding how to run their affairs.
Of the 108 academies that responded, 29 said they sold confectionery, nine sold fizzy drinks and seven sold energy drinks. In total, around one third of academies said they sold at least one item that would be banned in a local-authority school. That said, that figure is lower than the one produced by the School Food Trust, which reported in May that 89 out of 100 academies surveyed said they provided junk-food contraband.
This so-called scandal fits into the ongoing row between school-food campaigners, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and the Lib-Con government’s education secretary, Michael Gove, over whether compulsory food standards should apply to academies. Gove believes academies should have the freedom to decide for themselves. In April, Oliver told the Observer: ‘I don’t think it’s a party political issue. It’s a national issue and the arguments are clear. Me and Mr Gove haven’t got very far on this one, though. This mantra that we are not going to tell schools what to do just isn’t good enough in the midst of the biggest fucking obesity epidemic ever. The public health of five million children shouldn’t be left to luck or chance.’ Presumably, by ‘luck or chance’, Oliver means leaving things to the discretion of schools, which would be tantamount to dangerous free thinking.
The first thing to note in this increasingly strange debate is that banning junk food in schools is unlikely to make much difference to children’s consumption of such foods. Kids who want chocolate, crisps or fizzy drinks will simply buy them before or after school or by nipping out during their lunch break. The beneficiaries of the current clampdown on junk food in schools are not, by and large, the waistlines of school pupils, but rather the bottom lines of local shops (or the pockets of those kids enterprising enough to smuggle goodies into school to sell on their own little black market). No wonder, then, that some academy principals have decided that it would be better for the school fund to benefit from kids’ taste for the ‘wrong’ foods.
More to the point, though, it is questionable whether these kinds of snacks and drinks are, in themselves, harmful to children. While nobody would regard them as health foods, they do provide energy for active kids. If kids eat nothing other than ‘junk food’, then that’s a problem, but it is one which should be dealt with by parents, not by enforcing wide-ranging food bans at school.
Nor should we accept the claim that our children will carry on ballooning for years to come if we don’t impose junk-food bans. According to the Health Survey for England, the proportion of children who fell into the categories of either ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ peaked in 2004 at 34.3 per cent, and then it fell to 30.3 per cent by 2008. It seems unlikely that this fall was due to changing school meals to make them healthier - uptake of school meals fell sharply after Jamie Oliver’s crusading TV programmes in 2005. The potential ‘obesity timebomb’ that is used to justify ever more interference into our lives has failed to go off.
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We should also be wary of claims that obesity itself will lead to a tsunami of ill health and early death. After all, the population has apparently been getting fatter for years, yet life expectancies continue to rise.
The real epidemic here is one of control freakery. Campaigners and health wonks are up in arms at the idea that how schools are run - and in particular, how children are fed - might be decided by sensible, pragmatic decision-making in schools themselves rather than by diktat from Whitehall. One of the most troublesome aspects of policymaking today is the way in which decisions are made by a cosy and unpleasant cabal of lobbyists, civil servants, advisers and politicians. Those who actually have to live with the policies drawn up have little or no say in the process. By making academies independent, this cabal has been deprived of much of its influence over schools, and it isn’t happy about it. Of course, Jamie Oliver and the rest are perfectly entitled to put forward their point of view as part of normal public debate. It’s their behind-the-scenes carve-up of policy that is really problematic and which serves to disenfranchise the rest of us. If their influence has been weakened by the emergence of more academies, good.
The debate about ‘tuck’ has far wider ramifications than whether kids get to buy a Mars bar or a can of Coke during school hours. It is also about whether the unfashionable idea of allowing independent decision-making more broadly is going to flourish, or whether the control freaks are going to beat Gove, and lots of other people, into submission.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.