Gormless Gove

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.

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
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9 Responses to Gormless Gove

  1. Couldn’t agree more Matthew. It smacks of the worst kind of tokenism. Meeting someone at a dinner party and then asking them to write a report…I mean is this how we’re really running things now? Maybe if I follow William Hague on twitter I can negotiate with the Argentinians over the Falklands or get to grips with this skirmish in Syria once and for all.

    As much as I admire Leon’s Moroccan Meatballs I don’t think it qualifies either Dimbleby or Vincent to offer up anything of real value in this interminable debate. A debate which surely should have been won by now by anyone with any care for the future of our youth. I am reminded of the well-intentioned but ultimately doomed work Loyd Grossman undertook in hospitals. Something that seemed so obvious turned into a quest worthy of a Hobbit. I felt the same when Jamie took up the mantle for schools and while he achieved so much more, even he with all his energy, wealth and influence is still raging at the storm of apathy like King Lear in a toque.

    The time for reports is long past. Those are the only 7 words Henry and John need to write. It shouldn’t take them long…

  2. The best written blog I’ve read in a while…

  3. josephine says:

    I’ve been reading around the question of obesity for reasons of my own during the last few months … and some very interesting points have been made on the following website: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/issues/C34/ — I may not share certain of their views on what constitutes healthy food but it certainly seems to me that the whole question of obesity is being instrumentalised and excessively focused upon … perhaps to draw away from other, even more serious, issues.

  4. Barbara Lutterloch says:

    Brilliant! Brilliant!!

  5. shaun hill says:

    sadly the last labour government also came up with this sort of wheeze. I looked at hospital food with a few other chefs and Loyd Grossman. We all volunteered on the understanding that it wasn’t a gimmick and that there would be no accompanying PR. Wrong on both counts. I spent a fair amount of time in hospital kitchens – which was an eye opener – and wrote a report to the secretary of state advising that it was the systems and procedures at fault rather than staff, recipes or even budgets

    Next thing that comes along is a request for recipes and a telly crew for a channel four programme on the initiative. Recipes didn’t work for long and my piece to camera rather dismissive of it as a stunt. Guess which one of us didn’t get an OBE

  6. Foodometer says:

    Daily Mail reports that Dimbleby and Gove enjoyed a holiday together in Morrocco earlier this year. Is that where they cooked this up? Spot on again Matt.

  7. Snigdha Nag says:

    Sorry to discover this piece so late. Brilliant analysis and so well said. The unrestricted peddling of burgers, chips, pizza and cola is what has got us into this mess with school food. I really couldn’t agree with you more!

  8. Bevelie Shember says:

    Hooray for Matthew Fort.

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