Academies and free schools are failing to maintain nutritional standards for school meals, writes Baroness Jones of Whitchurch.
On Wednesday I will be challenging the education minister in the Lords to reverse their misguided policy not to insist that academies and free Schools apply the same nutritional standards to school food as are currently in force in the maintained sector.
The challenge comes hard on the heels of new research from the School Food Trust (SFT) which shows that some academies are using, or misusing, the freedoms given to them in the Education Act to let school food standards slip by allowing chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks to be sold on site. This is despite the fact that Michael Gove and his ministers have repeatedly insisted that academies could be trusted to recognise the health and education benefits of quality school food and did not need to be instructed to maintain the standards.
The academies give a variety of reasons for backsliding on the issue, some insisting that the nutritional standards were a burden and others taking the view that school food was a commercial activity which had nothing to do with children's education.
These arguments have a familiar ring to those of us involved in campaigning for improved school food over many years as it was precisely these attitudes which led to the Turkey Twizzler food culture which Jamie Oliver so spectacularly exposed.
Thankfully, the Labour government acted decisively at the time and set up the SFT to work with the sector and introduce common minimum nutritional standards for all. Since that time school food has been transformed and the number of secondary school students having school meals has started to rise again. The latest SFT survey shows that increasingly young people are adopting healthy choices where they are available, with the numbers having fruit, vegetables and salad with their lunch having doubled.
These developments are crucial in helping to tackle rising childhood obesity with a third of 11 year olds now being classified as overweight or obese. Also, for many pupils it is the only opportunity to eat a hot meal around a table. Meanwhile, research increasingly shows that good food not only improves children's health helping them maintain a healthy weight, it also improves their concentration and performance.
It is still early days as the nutritional standards were not implemented in full until 2009 but with such a good news story to tell, and so much work still to do to educate young people about healthy eating, it would be a disgrace if Academies continued to skip their responsibilities to feed young people properly.
Michael Gove said that he was confident that academies would maintain the nutritional standards without being compelled to do so. The evidence now shows that this isn't the case. The government should now use the evidence to bring academies back into line and make the standards compulsory for all again.
Margaret Beryl Jones was raised the peerage as Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, of Whitchurch in the County of South Glamorgan in 2006.