Bee Wilson says cookery teachers can't cook

Cookery teachers are now unable to make basics, such as scones or bread

Use Lucozade, Tango and Kit Kat as design resources. Describe the "biscuit preference" of an "elderly relative". Discuss mass-produced "brands of chocolate bars that are available as drinks and ice cream such as Mars, Aero". Think about the chilled desserts available in supermarkets and "design a layered chilled dessert containing fruit, for one person. Consider presenting it in a vacuum-formed package to show off the layered effect."

All of these precious commands come direct from the official National Curriculum website. They are all ideas for "schemes of work" appropriate for teaching food in British primary and secondary schools. Did I say teaching food? I should correct myself. For the past 12 years, the subject title for food in the National Curriculum has been "design and technology". Under this subject heading, food is classified on a par with plastic, wood and metal. This has some weird consequences, as New Statesman readers have written to tell me (thank you, Christopher Challener). By the time they take their GCSEs, a 16-year-old's knowledge of food is not formally expected to have progressed much beyond "design a casing for a snack bar". In other words, they are expected to look on food as coldly and rationally as if it were a Tetra Pak, something of no consequence for their own bodies, forgetting whatever kitchen wisdom they may have learnt about the world beyond encased snack bars, the world of teeth and flour and wooden spoons.

Teacher training has also suffered as a result of the classification of food under D&T. The old home economics teachers all knew - by definition - how to cook. But many newly trained D&T teachers are now unable to make basics, such as scones or bread. More shockingly, there have been instances of Ofsted inspectors berating able teachers for focusing too much on cooking, as if this were the last thing that they should be doing.

Anita Cormac, the formidable director of the Focus on Food campaign (which lobbies to improve food education), described to me a school where the eight-week D&T project was to "design a biscuit". Of those eight weeks, the children spent three weeks examining "packets of ageing biscuits" from the supermarket. They spent another three weeks "designing" the biscuit, weighing up such challenging questions as currants versus hundreds-and-thousands. Only in the final fortnight did they try to make the biscuit. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't a great success.

Focus on Food is calling for a more practical and "fresh" approach, aided by better teacher training and recruitment, and better government investment in the subject (the Scottish Executive already funds the Scottish Focus on Food). It is asking for food education, already compulsory in primary schools, to be made compulsory at "Key Stage 3" (the first stage of secondary school). Cormac is optimistic about the prospects for change, and argues that many of the current problems stem not from the National Curriculum itself, but the interpretation of it by schools.

It can't help matters, though, that the National Curriculum website directs you to the Sainsbury's "Taste of success" homepage as a teaching tool, where pupils can "learn" how Sainsbury's develop its ready-meals; nor that children studying food as D&T are expected to become "innovators" before they have become craftsmen; nor that all the official information for teaching the subject veers schizophrenically between advice on healthy eating ("brainstorm all the different things that can be made with fruit and vegetables") and product specifications for Mars Bars, seldom if ever stopping to consider the "design" skill involved in cooking a delicious daily meal.

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