Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Food for thought?

A seagull with flying goggles

Fending off hungry seagulls on one hand, tackling childhood obesity on the other. Ray Tarleton has a lot on his plate.

The topic of food is a preoccupation here and that's not just the chocolate bars in staff pigeonholes (now being used as an incentive for all kinds of things from data returns to getting your mug into the dishwasher). You see, we have a serious seagull problem and scavenging by these airborne predators is now reaching scary levels.

In Italy they sell 'walking ice creams', a description of ice cream sold to eat as you go. By that measure, virtually everything we sell is 'walking food', and it's converted into 'flying food' as students throw down their litter.

Anything biodegradable is swept up by birds just minutes after it is dropped. We could soon see one of our little year 7s swept into the skies. (I'm not sure if we've ticked the box for this on the health and safety checklist. Must speak to the deputy responsible.)

The seagull outside my window a few minutes ago was tucking into a packet of bacon crisps and a tasty-looking chicken wrap. And the processed contents deposited on staff cars leave us with guano lumps no car wash can remove. Mine looks as if it has been through the Bugsy Malone custard pie shoot-out.

It's partly the fault of the facilities. We don't really have any, though I'm not going to tell parents that on open day. The dining hall seats 150 which is great planning for a school of 1,650. To give everyone a hot meal, plate, knife and fork, we'd need... let's see...11 sittings. We could just squeeze everyone through if we began serving lunches at 9am and worked through till 3.35pm.

When I win the lottery I promise a Tarleton Tuck food hall that will amaze. But as I never buy a ticket, students had better not hold their breath. Until then, outdoor, on-the-hoof eating looks like the only solution, unless we can change their eating habits.

The obesity epidemic, of course, means that children today may lead shorter lives than their parents. Since this is bound to become the responsibility of schools which, as we all know, are to blame for all society's ills, we may need to re-think this whole food business.

I propose a new government target to sort the problem. In the school performance tables, next to the number of students gaining five A*-C passes at GCSE or high level SATs scores, why not provide a column to judge the weight of students in each school?

If it moves we should measure it, especially if there's a danger it will stop moving if we don't. And this is certainly a measurable target. The higher the average weight of the year group, the lower the success rate of the school.

Picture the scene: nervous teachers around the country waiting with fingers crossed in August to hear not just how many GCSEs their pupils have gained but also how they score on the bathroom scales. I can hear the Ofsted inspector now asking for data on body mass ratios.

Once the epidemic takes hold, schools may even have to be put into special measures because they fail the obesity target. The ECWM (Every Child's Weight Matters) agenda will roll off the tongue as easily as a sausage sandwich.

The dreaded Ofsted letter to the pupils, that gem of teacher subversion in which inspectors tell the students what they've told the staff to do to put the school to rights, could actually become a tonic: "Despite the best efforts of the school to educate you in the benefits of healthy eating, many of you still need to reduce your weight by two national curriculum levels."

I can see the staff clapping for joy: "That's telling them! They're fat as well as lazy. Just what we've been saying for years."

On the bright side, we have our new cycle initiative - bike buses of up to 30 riders led by the sixth form coming in from the outlying villages. There are clubs and activities on everything you can think of and Scoffers, our in-house canteen, serves great wholesome food. As no one at South Dartmoor ever sits still, I think that we might do rather well in the Obesity League Tables.

But for now, as I glance out of the window, I see another giant seagull fly past carrying something that looks suspiciously like my diminutive deputy...now who's going to do health and safety checks for me?

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College, Devon.


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