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COOKING THE BOOKS

01-02-2008

Plans to reintroduce compulsory cookery lessons won the government plenty of headlines recently, but Black Country teacher Lynn Hawthorne offers a different lesson they ought to digest - a recipe for creative thinking. 

So the government has decided that ‘domestic science’ is to be compulsory for all 11-14 year olds from September, has it?

In these days of microwaved convenience food and fast food takeaways, obesity levels in this country have reached dramatic levels, particularly amongst the young, so I understand the concern.

And television does seem inundated with ‘gurus’ of food telling us what to eat, when and how, so the influence is prevalent (though I strongly suspect that cooking is becoming a spectator sport rather then a physical activity.)

What concerns me is whether or not the government – with their whip-cracking drive towards raising academic standards – has actually contemplated the implications for schools of the re-introduction of a practical subject.

The target start date of September, which may seem far distant to those of you not in the business of education, is ominously close, as skilled staff need to be discovered and appointed.

As soon as the word ‘compulsory’ was mentioned, I could hear the staff responsible for timetabling lessons reaching for the revolver as they struggle to shoehorn in yet another subject to the curriculum.

Are teachers going to be allowed the time needed to teach this complex subject, or is it going to be caught up in this frantic ‘hourage’, where each subject has allotted hours throughout the year and schools feel obliged to try to fit them all in every week?

My most memorable timetable at secondary school in the 1970s was double domestic science in the technology block, followed by double PE in the gym and then single French on the fourth floor. You can imagine what the cauliflower cheese made at 9.30am was like by the time I got home after spending a day next to my pumps and being lugged up and down stairs!

If domestic science (or whatever politically-correct term they are going to come up with this time) is to be taught properly, it needs time and commitment.

My mother, at school in Birmingham in the 1950s, apart from getting on a bus to the local sports ground to participate in a near-lethal game called ‘skittleball’, undertook a subject called housewifery.

This was, of course, just after the war, when women were being discouraged from working to leave the jobs for the men and positively encouraged to stay at home to bring up the family, so views and values were different.

The school owned a house and the girls were taught how to clean it (air, prepare, sweep, dust and clean), how to wash up (glasses first, then crockery and saucepans last) and how to do the laundry. They also shopped for groceries using a budget and designed and cooked a menu for the headmistress and staff to sample.

This wasn’t a new concept, of course, because my grandmother had done something similar after the first war, but the principles embedded at fourteen and fifteen have lasted those women a lifetime.

I am not for a minute advocating the return of housewifery. It just isn’t possible today. For one thing, attitudes are vastly different and, with property prices at their current astronomical rate, owning a house is out of the question.

But the other reason that it is not possible is that the government would be unlikely to allow pupils to spend a whole day on one subject. They prefer this bitty approach, throwing all subjects into the weekly melting pot and hoping something sticks.

Anyone remotely connected with children and young people will know that this is errant nonsense. We learn best if we are allowed to experiment and explore and take time to develop things.

I did a day’s supply teaching in a primary school last week where the teacher gave me a simple, but increasingly rare, instruction: “Do what you like.” Now to someone who has bridled against conformity for all of her working life, this was music to my ears!

I still did numeracy, but concentrated on literacy. (Poetry, to be exact, but then, what do you expect?) But instead of analysing a poem to death for ten minutes and then presenting pupils with a blank page to fill with a perfect piece of writing in 20 minutes, as dictated by the Literacy Hour, I organised a number of activities prior to writing.

There was discussion, ‘thought showering’ (because you can’t say ‘brainstorming in case you offend epileptics, apparently), movement around the room and sharing of ideas. The pupils then worked in pairs to write one line and over lunch, I assembled these into short poems as an illustration of possibilities. The afternoon was spent either constructing or writing their own poem and producing a detailed illustration.

The result was 30 pupils who had achieved work of a high enough quality to be put into a class book and who were satisfied with their efforts. And the reason for this success? Time. Simply because they had time to continue trains of thought and follow something through to its logical and creative conclusion.

They actually achieved more in three hours than they would have done if they’d have drawn it out over five separate one-hour sessions in a week.

So this is a message to the education powers-that-be: think! Allow schools to be creative with their time management. Allow schools to block subjects. Allow schools to do what is best for their pupils in their community and do not dictate from Whitehall….unless you want to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, of course.

Then there’ll be the hotly debated issue surrounding political correctness of which country’s cuisine should be on the menu and served up for the  timetable and education critics, no doubt. Bon appetit!

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