It’s an absolutely classic government ploy. When you want to do nothing, call for a report. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has called for Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the founders of Leon, the chain of healthy eateries, to investigate the state of food in our schools.
Let us put aside for a moment the question of what qualifies two successful businessmen to carry out such an investigation, and their wisdom is accepting the brief. It’s Michael Gove’s competence and motives I want to examine. Can he really be unaware of the Food Standards Authority report on Schools Meals in Secondary Schools in England (2004), the FSA report on School Meals in Primary Schools (2005), the report by the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology on Nutritional Standards in UK schools of 2009, not to mention the Ofsted Food in Schools Report of 2010? Has so much changed in the last two years to warrant yet another ‘report’?
Under the present government, we have seen the abrogation of political responsibility to drive up the standards of food in our schools. There has been consistent erosion of the minimal standards that were in place, and increasing numbers of ‘academy’ schools have been allowed to opt out of controls altogether, on the grounds that they constituted unwelcome “conscription”, restricting head teachers’ freedom of action.
Freedom of what? Does the Department of Education show a similar laissez fair attitude to what is taught in our schools, and how? On the contrary, the department issues ‘guidelines in every greater numbers, creating ever-greater prescriptions.
So why does in care so little about how children eat? If schools have little or no freedom in the curricula for history, English, maths or geography, why are they allowed such freedom in matters of food? Of what possible benefit are the highest educational qualifications in the world if you’re dead by forty because you’ve shite all your life?
The fact is that we will be facing the consequences of successive governments’ failure to address the problem of obesity that is currently engulfing our children. In twenty or thirty years these layers of fat will be translated into a tsunami of heart disease and diet related conditions, with dire consequences for the NHS.
There is a strong suggestion that Mr Gove’s move is motivated more by political ideology than by either sense or a duty of care to children. This government has proved brilliant at masking the right wing nature of their policies with the rhetoric of the liberal left. Just as there is with ‘academy’ schools, there is the whiff of the old market force theology coming from the way the terms for this ‘report’ has been framed, the notion that the old Thatcherism nostrum ‘choice’ should be the decisive criteria, the belief that all groups should be reduced to ‘markets’.
I can see no other reason why Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent should have been asked to lead this inquiry. They have no specialisation in nutrition, children’s welfare, school catering or even education in its broadest sense. They are businessmen pure and simple. They run a successful chain of quick, cheap, healthy eateries based exclusively in London. There are no Leons in Macclesfield, Margate or even Manchester.
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent belong to a cosy coterie of metropolitan mates. They say that they are apolitical. I very much hope not, although it may depend on how you define the word ‘apolitical’. Did neither vote in the last election? I have heard John Vincent being highly entertaining and opinionated on Radio 4’s Bottom Line, and it seemed to me that he was a pretty unabashed freebooting free-marketeer to me. I may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t square with being apolitical in my book.
Jamie Oliver has excoriated Mr Gove, with very good reason. Jamie Oliver has made a study of school food and wrestled with it in a way that Michael Gove, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent have not. Given a choice between Jamie Oliver and that lot, I would side with Jamie Oliver.
But even if they produced the most brilliant report in the history of reports on school food, Mr Gove is not bound by the findings of it. No doubt he will spend several months considering its findings, developing a response, commissioning a report on the report, issuing a white paper for further discussion etc etc, using all the parliamentary delaying tactics with which we have become familiar over the years, in the hope that we will get bored, distracted, fed up, move on to some other contemporary concern. Thanks to all the earlier reports. We know what should be done. There are even the structures in place with which to do it, All Mr Gove lacks, is the judgement, belief and will to do it.
I am a great believer in choice in most things, but not when it comes to the future health of our children.