Healthy meals for children, pristine premises and lovely grounds are within the grasp of every school, argues headteacher Mark Barnett

It’s official, the world’s gone mad, as confirmed one weekend in May 2006. Each weekend I buy several newspapers and read them, usually the Express, The Times, the Mail and the Mirror. An Independent might creep in now and then. During the school holidays my reading list may also include the Observer and the Guardian. I like to take in a wide range of views. I watch Sky News for the same reason.

So, what should we really be concerned with in today’s world? The war in Iraq, third world hunger, sleaze in politics, drought conditions in the south-east? No… the newspapers have pages and pages on how the government is going to change the way schools deliver school dinners! As I said, the world has gone stark raving bonkers. A school provides five out of the 21 meals a week based on three meals a day, if a child stays for a school dinner – and that’s only in term time. Wouldn’t it make better sense to be more concerned about the other 16?

I have news for the government: I’ve sorted it. I believe many other colleagues in schools have sorted it and those that haven’t, have the power to sort it! Pre- Jamie Oliver, pre-government reports, this was a dead issue in our school. Why? We’ve always been concerned with the quality of food provided in our school. Do ministers really believe that providing 50 pence for the food cost of each school meal in the primary setting is going to change anything radically? Get real! I haven’t seen a turkey twizzler for two years. Fish fingers without fish have long disappeared. Crisps and fizzy drinks from our snack bar were consigned to history, along with the dinosaur-shaped burgers.

Our school meals have been so much better since we took over the service ourselves four years ago. Maybe ‘took over’ are not the right words. Let me explain. We used to be with North Yorkshire County Caterers, the main provider. They offered a good meals service to schools throughout the North Yorkshire region, along with a few other providers. They employed the kitchen staff, set salaries, menus and working conditions. In discussion with the provider, we took out a service level agreement with them, which in effect made them work for us and not the other way round. Under the agreement, we pay the firm a set service level agreement fee that works out well for both parties.

What’s the difference? Quite simply, we have control over purchasing arrangements, number of staff employed, their uniform and what we charge for a school meal, and we get better value. Children entitled to a free school meal still get them in the same way as before. I personally don’t have to worry about health and safety regulations regarding the kitchen or payroll. That comes under this managed service that the school controls.

I believe success in running your own school meals service is dependent on the quality of your school cook. Westfield School is fortunate in having a catering manager of the highest calibre. Her salary immediately increased by £6 000 when we took over. From being one of the lowest paid members of staff in the school, she became one of the highest paid ‘other staff members’ and deservedly so. We have a teashop in York called Bettys. Sheila trained there. Her cream scones are to die for! Sheila is often asked to talk to colleagues in other schools about their school meals service. She is innovative and she and her team provide high quality meals on a daily basis. The school also out-sources to other establishments such is the quality and consistency of the service provided.

Over the last three years the uptake of school meals has not decreased. We charge £1.75 a day for a school meal, probably making our primary school meals the most expensive in York. But parents who subscribe to the meals service are happy with this as we regularly explain our use of our ‘fresh produce only’ policy. Twenty-two percent of our children are entitled to free school meals. Around 40% of the juniors and 28% of the infants have a school dinner. I don’t think this is enough considering the quality on offer. We serve well over 1,100 school meals each week. The rest have a packed lunch, with no children going home during this break. We actively advertise the quality of our school meals.

Hmm… packed lunches: I probably need a whole article on that subject! Our school council is active in putting forward suggestions regarding eating healthily in school. They recently carried out an audit of school lunch boxes that provoked much discussion. It is interesting that the school council suggested charging parents 20 pence a day if they want their child to have a packed lunch on the premises – now there’s innovation! It may run as a pilot and would enable the funding of increased lunchtime supervision. Also at the school council’s request, we are now refurbishing our dining room at a substantial cost to the school. The council reckon it will make our dining area more aesthetically pleasing and encourage children to eat a school meal there. They’ve got a point.

The school gained the Healthy Schools Award in 2005. We use fresh ingredients including fresh vegetables, fruit and real meat and fish products. Fruit, salad and fresh vegetables are always available for the children. The topic of healthy eating is promoted throughout the curriculum and our award recognised the important part our school meals service plays in maintaining a healthy diet.

So, give or take, healthy eating at Westfield is not a problem and it never really was except for the packed lunch issue. I’m sorry some children are obese but we’ve never encouraged them to be so. I remember being weighed at school but not knowing why. I also had my teeth, height and hair checked – the latter for nits. Nurses from our School Health Service ‘are not allowed’ to check for nits, much to the annoyance of parents and staff! A colleague told me how he has got round this at his school – he employs a private nurse and gained permission slips from those parents wanting their child’s hair checked. A 100% return! We will be doing the same. But I digress…

So how’s your cleaning? It’s only taken me 15 years but we are just about there. I personally was getting too involved with cleaning issues. Like the school meals, we run this function and have done so for nearly five years. Cleaning has improved from the days when the service was run by the local authority, although it’s taken a while to get there.

We’ve just appointed a dedicated cleaning supervisor. Prior to this, our site manager had overall responsibility for the cleaning staff and the cleaning standards. Nothing personal against the staff, but cleaning standards were similar to our end of Key Stage 2 results… variable! Our school site is very large and I think it was unfair of me to expect our site manager to manage the cleaning staff as well as carry out his own duties. Having said this, it was the way cleaning had been managed for the previous 50 years. Only it wasn’t managed.

It isn’t always easy to get cleaning staff but we are now up to strength in this area. We pay good salaries – more than the hourly rate at a leading supermarket. Our cleaning supervisor is their line manager. Our school business manager is his line manager.

The cleaning supervisor ensures the school is now cleaned to an agreed standard. He monitors the cleaners’ work and they know they are responsible to him. He asks for areas to be re-cleaned if they do not meet his standard.

It is a similar story for grounds maintenance. I know some schools don’t have grounds to maintain as such, but for those who do, this can be a headache. When I arrived at Westfield, the school had a local authority contract with a local firm. I believe the key to that firm was the grounds maintenance manager, a lovely gentleman called Frank. He ensured his team provided a quality service and, as a result, school grounds in the area were beautifully manicured. Unfortunately, he passed away at a time the firm was expanding. It’s the same old story about taking on too much to meet your core customers’ needs. Standards dropped, reliable staff left and our school was beginning to look unkempt.

A chance conversation with a colleague led me to form a contract with a new provider and we haven’t looked back. He’s been with us now for three years and the land is looking green and pleasant! From his initial one school, Richard drew up a business plan and now has 20 schools to manage. I’ve never met such a diligent grounds maintenance person. It’s probably because he is from good old Yorkshire farming stock and he expects standards to be met from his small but highly efficient team.

We now have flowerbeds, a sensory garden area and sports pitches, which are laid out well and on time. He has worked with one of our volunteer parents to make a wildlife area for the children and no task is too small or too annoying for him to complete. I now, thankfully, have nothing to do with keeping the grounds pristine – it just happens. I can just admire the result.

So colleagues, I think the moral is ‘do it yourself’– stay in control so that you can address issues as they arise, rather than having to rely on someone else. After the initial shock of taking on the contracts, you can leave the rest to the supervisor you appoint for the specific role or your school business manager. What? Some of you do not have a school business manager? I feel another article coming on!