LACA’S view of Giles Coren school meal review in Times magazine
29/10/2012 - 16:37

A review of a school meal was included in The Times Magazine on Saturday 27 October 2012. The review was written by restaurant critic Giles Coren, who had been invited to Carshalton Boys Sports College for school lunch by Leon restaurant co-founder, Henry Dimbleby. Henry and fellow co-founder John Vincent, are compiling an independent School Food Plan for the Government.

Giving her view of the article, Anne Bull, LACA National Chair says: “This is probably the first time a restaurant critic of the standing of  The Times’s Giles Coren has taken the time and trouble to try a school lunch and then gone on to give it such a positive rating, perhaps even exceeding the scores that would be achieved by some of this country’s best restaurants.

“This is an excellent example of what can be achieved when a whole school works together for the benefit of pupils and students. There are many other examples of good practice at schools up and down Britain, whether their food service is provided by the local authority, private contractors or individual schools themselves.

“Each school will, of course, have different operational challenges and issues  to address such as available resources and space, but hundreds will have school chefs like Dave Holdsworth at the Carshalton school.

“All are equally committed to offering nutritious, high quality school meals which are not only appealing to children and teenagers but are affordable for parents and exceed expectations.

“As is the case at Carshalton Boys Sports College, it does help considerably to have an inspirational, enthusiastic and highly committed head teacher who sees the bigger picture for the role of school food and the importance of adopting a healthy eating culture that the whole school follows.

“There is no doubt that Carshalton’s school meals service and its achievements are exemplary, but Giles Goren would find other fine examples of school food provision in many other schools right now.

“The turnaround in this school’s GCSE results at the same time as its school meal uptake has risen, does indicate a strong connection between healthy eating and academic attainment.

“Attendance figures for the school are probably up as well. There is proven evidence that those children who eat well, do better. More head teachers need to follow the example of Carshalton head teacher Simon Barber.

“As this school shows, making a commitment to the school food service is actually an investment in the future academic standing of the school as well as one that helps its pupils and students to achieve their full potential.”

You can read here the full text of Giles Coren’s review:

‘The standout dish is the salmon. Wouldn't disgrace a brasserie at something like £10.95; here it's £1.65’

Another day dawns. The restaurant critic awakes. He was out for dinner last night in some fashionable new faux-boho, no-booking, one-dish-only joint with absinthe cocktails, tattooed staff and idiot punters slobbering over newness for its own sake, and tonight he will almost certainly be dining somewhere exactly the same.

But first he must plan lunch. He goes online to see where the bloggers are talking about today, and is by no means surprised to find that it is a faux-boho, no-booking, one-dish-only joint with absinthe cocktails, tattooed staff and idiot punters slobbering over newness for its own sake.

Oh good, he thinks. For he has not been to one of those in hours. And has only been to seven so far this week.
And then he starts to cry. He's just about to call his boss and throw in the towel when the telephone rings.

"Hello," says his old restaurateur friend, Henry Dimbleby, who seems to be appearing in roughly half of his reviews these days. "I want you to come for lunch with me at a..."

"Faux-no-burger booking boho tattoo joint in Soho?"

"No, a place in the middle of a very poor housing estate in Carshalton, which does 1,100 meals a day at around £1.50 a head, or free, grows some of its own veg, keeps chickens and might just make this country great again."

"Doesn't sound very on-trend. What's it called?"

"Carshalton Boys Sports College."

"Edgy. Do they take reservations?"

"They take anyone. It's a comprehensive school that has recently turned itself around from 4 per cent of pupils getting five GCSEs at A* to C grades to 100 per cent and, more interestingly for you, has gone from a 20 per cent uptake of school meals to 80 per cent uptake in the same period.

The two things being, in the headmaster's opinion, very much related."

"Why is that interesting for me?"

"Because you fully support my spearheading, with my business partner John Vincent, of the School Food Plan, which reports to the Department for Education but is fully independent of government."

"Ah, yes," says the restaurant critic.

"So I do."

And I do, in a flighty and apolitical way.
For I cannot be seen in this column explicitly to endorse anything the government proposes. I must be neutral. I am like the Queen. I may endorse the odd treacle tart, or give my backing to a nice soup, but of politics I must be seen to have none.

Long story short: Michael Gove comes in to the DfE, broadly endorses strategy of Blair Government in general and Lord Adonis in particular, presses on with Academification of the comprehensives (as well as greenlighting the more controversial Free Schools programme), putting power and money in the hands of head teachers as opposed to local authorities, sees that parallel energy needs to be put into the improvement of school meals, grasps that the celebrated Jamie Oliver project rather petered out, sets up the School Food Plan, asks Henry and John to spearhead it, Henry calls me, I get on train.

There have been dozens of reports on school dinners over the years, Henry explains on the 10.14 southbound out of Kentish Town, and he is keen for this one not to be just another ignored pile of paper on top of the pile of ignored papers he was handed when he agreed to do it.

So Henry and John have gone at it like the management consultants they once were and the restaurateurs they are now. They have drawn up a rigorous plan that is currently in the first stage: research (eating). Previous reports/plans have tended just to shout at dinner ladies to stop serving chips, Henry says. Criticism forces entrenchment rather than change, apparently, so this time they are going to focus on schools where the food system already works well and on how to help failing schools adopt those practices. Carshalton works well, so here we are.

It looks more or less like a school to me. Grange Hill rather than Hogwarts, but clean, quietish, well-appointed, full of great facilities (the headmaster and his cohorts are whizzes at applying for grants of every sort), hundreds of boys in school uniforms that fit some better than others, tie knots not too silly for the most part, by no means the sort of childhood obesity one sees on most London streets, and a gentle, irenic atmosphere prevailing.

Many of the kids here are from the very poorest backgrounds, some literally bruised with anaemia from malnutrition and unlikely to eat after lunch here until lunch the next day (unless they come for the £1 breakfast before school or the free 4.30pm curry for boys who stay on to do homework), with a whopping 40 per cent on free school meals.

A quick look at the chickens (12 Light Sussex by the looks of them), a geodome greenhouse project of some sort, some raised beds looking a bit winter-bare, hundreds of iPads (apparently a good thing), a cookery class in a very modern, Jamie-ish looking kitchen where they are making cupcakes (obviously), and then lunch.
Blackboards show the meals, deals ("Main & 1 veg, dessert, drink, £1.90") and specials, and you have from 1.05pm to 1.40pm to get in, eat and get out, though generally turnover of covers is seven minutes (a speed many Michelin- starred London joints would love to emulate), which is why so many can be served each day.

The standout dish for me is the salmon special with chilli and coriander: perfectly cooked, great texture, lively seasoning, with some pretty decent stir-fried vegetables. Totally wouldn't disgrace a high street brasserie at something like £10.95, but available here for £1.65. The huge, scary head chef, Dave Holdsworth, tells me it costs him £1.60 to put on the plate, which is not going to be much different from that high street brasserie - it's just a question of mark-ups.

There are delicious individual steak pies with terrific home-made pastry, good roast vegetables and quite excellent roast potatoes. The curry is fine but underpowered in a way that is unavoidable in a school, not just because spice tolerances vary, but also because they are severely limited in the amount of salt they are allowed to use - and there is none on the table, either. Personally, I think too much of a fuss is made about the health negatives of salt. But nobody cares what I think. Least of all me. The boys drink canned things that are mostly juice; no Coke, Red Bull, Nurishment or Castrol GTX.

There's a pasta bar, salads, and the puds, obviously, are historic. Great crumble (with pleasing saltiness in the topping, as it happens, to set off the sweetness of the fruit), lush jam roly poly, terrific custard, and lots of boring fruit for losers.

The kids who sat with us had good food knowledge and were exemplary citizens. Although they must have been seriously handpicked: can three out of seven boys here really want to be architects? But even the one little squeaker who admitted he wanted to be a footballer understood the link between diet and personal performance ("It'll basically mean no KFC," he shrugged).

The great thing the headmaster, Simon Barber, has done here is to tackle his problem head-on. You can't run any sort of food business on 20 per cent take-up. So he reduced his prices, hired a chef at a salary that wouldn't disgrace a top West End restaurant, shortened his menu and accepted losses while he waited for take-up to improve.

Crucially, he tackled the competition, the junk-food outlets up the road, cutting prices until they were no longer attractive options and driving them out of business, or at least out of the reckoning. And there is no pandering to childish whims - nobody is allowed to have only potatoes, it must be balanced platefuls.

It was easiest, of course, to change the attitudes of the youngest kids; the boys at the top of the school when he arrived, says Chef Dave, were beyond help. But now a proper attitude to food goes right through the school. And the civilised culture that begins in the canteen (boys clear up after each other, hold doors open, all that) now permeates the school.

The loos seem to be Barber's proudest achievement though. I hardly dared mention my desperate need for a wee after lunch, imagining the stinking, broken-doored, wet-floored molestation chambers of my own schooling many years ago, but the bogs at Carshalton are gleaming steel and porcelain, with fountain taps in circular sinks and banks of Dyson Airblades.

It seems to me that once the School Food Plan has got all our places of education up to this standard, it might start on our restaurants.

Carshalton Boys Sports College
Winchcombe Road, Carshalton, Surrey

Cooking: 8

Achievement: 10

Sustainability: 7.5 (My SRA audit found all sorts of free-range, organic and local sourcing, a Soil Association Food for Life Partnership Silver Award, good energy-saving practices and excellent energy-awareness education.)

Score: 8.5