The school I’d Like Would be so fun With no strict teachers And in the shape of a big bun
(Sarah, age 11, Edinburgh.)14
In 1967 the Observer newspaper hosted a competition which provided the opportunity for secondary school children in the UK to describe and design their preferred or ideal school. Nine hundred and forty-three entries were received
amounting to some half a million words, innumerable charts, collages, architectural or pseudo-architectural drawings. In the words of Edward Blishen, who later edited the collection into a small volume, The School That I’d Like, ‘it amounted to an enormous, remarkably good humoured, earnest, frequently passionate and, at its best, highly intelligent plea for a new order in our schools.’15 Critical appraisal of the edible landscape, in particular of the school meal, became a section of the book entitled ‘One of the Main Grumbles’. Here, Blishen remarked:
If schools are ever widely improved, children will lose one of their best jokes and most beloved grouches. But it is clear from the evidence of these essays that they would endure the loss gladly. Given their attachment to the joke, there can’t be any doubt that in a great many schools the meals are still badly cooked and indifferently served. The chief pleas come again and again, and are all represented here: not only for good cooking, but for varied menus; some say in the size of the meal on any particular occasion; the avoidance of banal or eccentric combinations of dishes; an opportunity to choose among alternatives; and a pleasant environment in which to eat.16
A generation later, the question has been put once again to children and young people in the UK, this time from the age of five to eighteen. The Educational Supplement of the Guardian newspaper was invited to host a competition. As in the original competition, the newspaper covers the whole of the British Isles and is read in countries across the world. Corporate sponsorship of the competition secured ICT equipment to be given to the schools from which winning entries were received. The competition was held between January and March 2001.17 But unlike the original ‘School I’d Like’ ‘competition, this time there was a fundamental commitment to archive each and every one of the entries which amounted to some 20 000 pieces. Invited to choose any format, submissions took the form of essays, poems, photo essays, letters to the prime minister, project files, video, paintings, three-dimensional models, power point presentations and interactive CD-Roms. Some schools produced entries from all pupils, some came in the form of class or group entries, some were individual entries and many were from individual children who used their own initiative supported by other family members outside of school.
The edible landscape features strongly in the majority of entries and it is possible to see within them the impact of the enormous changes that have taken place in the provision of school meals in the UK and the commodification of food more generally. It is possible to read the way that changes in the general edible landscape, the widespread privatization of the school meals service coupled with the ‘McDonaldization’ of diet, has altered the culture of consumption and has influenced the expectations of children and young people.18 However, it is also possible to identify a strong continuity with the past in the desires of children and young people to ‘have a say’ in the edible landscape of school. There is much evidence of continued dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of food, the environment in which food is prepared, served and consumed, as well as with the contextual organization of discipline, surveillance and control around pupils’ consumption. But these are not mere grumbles. Children are keenly interested in food and there is here a considerable body of inventive and creative thought given to ways in which food production, processing and consumption can be improved and form a rich and satisfying platform for learning.
One of the winning entries of the competition came from a ‘Special’ school situated in the north west of England. Longley Special School renamed itself ‘Longley Dream School’ for the purposes of the competition. This state mainstream school cares for and educates 130 children aged five to sixteen with ‘complex special needs’ and has two autistic units. The older children surveyed the whole school under the guidance of their teachers and produced a report, a significant part of which discusses the edible landscape of the school. They described the kind of space for eating they would prefer, emphasizing the need for adequate space in
We need more heating because every day in the winter it is too cold in the dining hall and it is too hot in the summer so we need to cool it down.
We Want A Dinner Place Like This
We need a new burger bar in the hall for people who can buy food. We also need a new sandwich bar for children who can eat egg, cheese, and tuna.
People who are a Muslims can’t eat ham, hot dogs, chicken, or turkey, because only original people can eat this food.
general and for intimate smaller social eating spaces in particular. Choice of where to sit, whether in a large or small space is important. The need for better furnishing to create a warm, quieter and calmer atmosphere is mentioned.
The preferred setting for eating was photographed to help illustrate the kind of environment envisaged in an ideal or ‘dream’ school. Some of the requirements are basic.
The report indicates a strong awareness of the importance of nutrition to support a lively educational experience. No token offering but a ‘good breakfast’ would be ideal in a ‘dream school’. The needs of school staff and pupils are recognized equally.
Dining areas, since they usually occupy large open spaces, are noisy and hectic. For many
children, this represents a particular area of discomfort. In spite of the tendency towards ever – faster consumption of food on the move, young children often crave a space of calmness within which to take their time to digest their food. The school dinner hall or canteen suggests otherwise.
I would like a school with kind and quiet people and a teacher who would help me whenever I got stuck and at dinner time, when I walk into the dinner hall, it would be quiet and not loud. (Jessica, age 9, London.)
Edible landscapes are in evolutionary terms, original landscapes. Food and drink is fundamental to survival and in the compulsory, largely controlled and increasingly scrutinized territory of the school, children recognize the importance of this
landscape. School meals, served up in noisy halls or canteens are associated with heaviness, dullness, grey colours and dismal moods. Both in 1967 and today, children readily associated the serving of school food with the institutional, such as the prison, with reference to the traditional emphasis on control and regulation of bodies.
School meals are ghastly affairs, which always cause disturbance among pupils and adults. (Angela, age 15, Blishen, 1969, p. 150.)
At the present time in the UK, school meals in primary schools are often served within an atmosphere of distrust and compulsion, sometimes within enforced silence. This goes a long way to explain the prevailing dislike of the school meals assistant or supervisor whose job it is to ensure that the meal is taken with the minimum of fuss and waste. This person, usually a low paid contracted worker with little professional status, can sometimes be seen to make up for their lack of professional authority in the school by displaying rather autocratic tendencies. These in turn can be adopted by older children in the role of prefects or school meals monitors. For a child who is feeling a little unwell, is simply not hungry, or who needs to visit the toilet during the meal time, the dining area can become a forbidding and threatening place.
In 1967, secondary school age children commented on the regimentation of school meals which was so disliked:
In my school nobody will force the pupils to eat if they don’t want to. (Girl, age 14, Blishen, 1969 p. 150.)
These systems are wrong because, particularly in boys school where senior boys have the power to beat younger boys, having power over others can give pupils an overbearing or even sadistic disposition. (Alexandra, age 13, Blishen 1969, p. 159.)
It was felt that the civility and sociability essential to enjoyable collective eating was missing or neglected in school. In an ideal environment ‘We would not be thrown out at lunch time but would be allowed to go somewhere to sit and talk.’ (Janet, age 14, Blishen, 1969, p. 156.)
A generation later, it is clear from some of the commentary that accompanies competition entries that compulsion and discipline are still felt as oppressive by young children in school canteens as is made clear by such comments as ‘The school I would like is a school where you can go crazy in the canteen and get out of your seats all of the time’. (Kealan, age 6, Derry.)
A generation ago, the food itself, traditionally a meat and two vegetables dish, was considered to be dull, dead or lacking life. Dreams, schemes, fantasies and suggestions about how the school environment might be made ideal were coloured with metaphors of food and drink in light or weightless contexts. Interestingly, the food itself remains unchanged despite the technological packaging and other inventions envisaged.
Down to the feeding hall by mono-rail they speed, a sunlit room floating in space…
Boys stand before vast shining machines; Press-button feeding is the rule of the day.
This one gives shepherd’s pie, this treacle stodge, Eaten from paper plates, disposable.
Then to the gym, for trampolines in space or Half an hour’s horseplay in the low gravity chamber.
This is the school I’d like to go to… I think?
(C. (boy), age 13, Blishen, 1969, p. 32.)
The lightness associated with sophisticated technologies in relation to school dinners is a theme repeated thirty years on:
My ideal school would be a hovercraft. There would be lots of schools, each covering a small area. The hover-school will be powered by solar power. The large roof will be made of solar panels. At night the hover school will have to land to conserve its spare energy for an early morning. When the schools land for lunch break, next to the landing site will be four small canteens, one for each year. (Katherine, age 9.)
Natural metaphors have long been associated with educational environments. The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic for education was an image of dew falling from the sky. These ancient resonances reflect a spiritual, transforming and regenerative concept of education, something which is expressed fully in many of the metaphorical allusions used by modern children and young people in the ‘School I’d Like’ collection. For example, the school is envisaged in the shape of a flower, the classrooms as petals, altogether a symbol of life, growth and nourishment.
The centre of the flower is a big glass dome and that is the main hall; the heart of the school. It would be much more lighter than electric lights. I would also like some of the older children in the school to climb on ladders and make stained glass designs on the dome. This would mean that when the light shines through it will make lovely patterns on the floor. The stalk of the flower would be the main corridor from the leaves at the bottom and the flower head at the top. It would be extremely long and would have toilets, lost property, shops to buy your dinner, a library, and a quiet room. (Sarah, age 10, Sheffield.)
This child, new to schooling, lets the metaphor flow with soothing effect:
I wish my school would be a flower school. I would have flower tables and chairs. I wear flower clothes. I would wear little flowers in my hair…I eat flower sandwiches. I drink Ribena. I have flower shaped crisps and flower shaped sweets and biscuits. (Ellie, age 5, Cheshire.)
Other recent research initiatives that have explored the ways in which children conceptualize school spaces in northern European countries show that edible metaphors are often readily used to describe school itself. In these accounts, school can be likened to ‘a nightmare’, ‘being buried alive’, a ‘bitter lemon’ or a ‘rotten apple’.19
Avoidance of contact with adults – and especially the lunchtime supervisor or kitchen worker – is indicated in the desires of schoolchildren. The robotic dinner operative is an attractive option for many. And in general, the application of technology to the harsh environment of the dining room or dual or triple use school hall, with its rules and associated punishments, is echoed in these voices of children and young people. The tedium of queuing is recognized by many school pupils and once more, technology is considered to offer a possible solution:
Each pupil would have a computer with all the necessary things that you would need to get through the school day. If you put money in the slot school dinners would pop out of a hatch in the middle of the pack, saving time on queues for them.’(Andrew, age 13, Bristol.)
Dinner isn’t served by dinner ladies. As a matter of fact they are not served by anyone at all. They come hurtling towards us on a huge spinning wheel and it’s pot luck what we get, because as soon as we decide what we want, our pick is probably on its way round again. (Jade, age 9, London.)
Many schools habitually utilize the school hall for a multitude of purposes; the most common combination being the canteen and the gym. This is discussed as an enduring problem by children in describing their ideal school environments. ‘We need a separate dining hall because some of the little children drop bits of food and when we do PE some of the food gets in our feet.’ (Thomas, age 11, Yorkshire.)
But there is thoughtful consideration given to the economic use of space:
Instead of eating our dinner in our assembly hall, and having to rush our food because it is not big enough for us all, I think we should have a proper canteen for our main hot dinners and a cafeteria for snacks, drinks and to sit on rainy days and have a chat.
The cafe should be open at breaks too, so that we can get extra drinks and snacks if we need them.
At the moment we have to go all afternoon without a drink, unless we save some from lunch. This is bad on hot days. This would be good for us socially, and the rooms could be used for the after school clubs as well, so the space won’t ever be wasted. (Kimberley, age 10, Derbyshire.)
At the same time, the sheer dullness of spaces for eating was commented on: ‘Our canteen needs decorating because at the moment it’s very dull. I’d like
to have new dinner ladies, because the ones we have are a bit grumpy.’ (Serena, age 8, London.)
The ‘School I’d Like’ competition 2001 revealed a yearning among children for the potential of an integrated curriculum, combining the indoors with the outdoors, and with the production of food at its centre:
At the side or front of the drama block there should be a large shaped pond. The pond will be at the side of a fenced in allotment with a green house. All fenced in with a hedge to prevent children from falling in and it could be part of the students’ curriculum to look after it. We would need a shed to keep all the tools in. (Carl, age 15, Sheffield.)
‘Learning by doing’ has long been the maxim of critical pedagogy from John Dewey to John Holt. For Dewey, the school garden was regarded as a central part of the curriculum, its produce serving the school and wider community. In spite of the industrialization of the countryside and the commodification of nature, it is not often recognized that young children can still perceive the value of such an approach to learning.
There would be a big cafeteria overlooking the river and lots of choices of healthy food. I think we should have a small farm so we can learn to plant and grow our food and look after animals. We could have a small snack bar in the grounds and take it in turns to make and sell things like bread,
sandwiches and biscuits___ We could have a
special classroom in the trees to help us study nature really close up. We could have a ladder and walkway in the treetops. (Hannah, age 8, Barrow Hill.)
In such a school, there is fun and fairness and children will ‘have a say’, even taking an active part in food production and preparation. In this envisaged school…
…we have really nice school dinners, which if you have any comments or complaints about there are some forms by the till which can be filled in. . We have monitors that help the dinner ladies cook. We only have chips once a week because they are junk food. Sometimes we have chicken nuggets, but they often cook tasty dishes with vegetables and we eat a lot of fruit. Some of the food is grown in the garden like herbs and
vegetables. We have cookery lessons where we learn how to make cakes and biscuits and eat them for our lunch. My friend Gary once found a penny in his biscuit. (Max, age 9, Birkenhead.)
Lack of formality, or at least irregularity of sitting arrangements in dining areas is appealing to the school child past and present. It seems to go hand in hand with increased choice of food, as illustrated in the following extracts from the 1969 collection:
…A choice of dish only if it is from stringy beans to cannonball peas. The actual room could be bright and airy and the tables arranged in an orderly but not regular pattern. (Anne, age 14, Blishen, 1969, p. 151.)
‘Whoever compiles the menus cannot have much of an idea of catering. A particular example of this is: green salad, fish, chips and peas. Ugh! I know that if it was left to me or others that will remain anonymous, such a combination would not dare to cross the mind.
All this would be stopped in my ideal school, and pupils would have a menu of several dishes to choose from. I realise the possibility of unnecessary waste, but we could combat that by ordering the meal several days beforehand.’ (Valerie, age 14, Blishen, 1969. p. 150.)
What is most often expressed is the desire for a decent social context for eating. Rather than the regular, rectilinear arrangements of bodies around tables and chairs, with the implied head of table and authoritarian regime mirroring that found in the classroom and the rest of the school, an alternative is envisaged. What then becomes challenged is the formality and associated meanings of control in spaces which are, from the point of view of the young person, predominantly for enjoyment and social interaction. Limited choice of food and little freedom to socialize implies a regular or linear arrangement of furniture; greater choice and freedom to socialize implies irregular arrangements and smaller groupings to facilitate interaction.
School break times usually imply a certain freedom from control but this is increasingly
tempered by adult supervision and increasing levels of technologically enhanced surveillance. Children desire more private spaces free from observation and control.
Interestingly, when asked if they had any spaces to call their own in school, young people in a recent study did not locate the dining area as one such space, but rather the locker or the desk among very few such spaces, explaining ‘The school feels like a public space belonging to the whole world.’20
Given the opportunity to reflect on the whole school, its organization and built environment, there were few children in the UK in 2001 who had nothing to say about food and the edible landscape. Quite the contrary, and most were delighted to have the opportunity to comment.
My head bursts with ideas that could be changed on food. Like more choices such as Indian food for the Indian children, Chinese food for the Chinese children and so on or you could just have more choices for children who wanted to try out different foods… Sometimes I wish that lunchtimes were longer, there are times when I feel I have hardly sat down to eat and three tables have gone out to break already. (Isobel, age 9, Birmingham.)
The edible landscape, according to children and young people across the UK, should reflect the cultural landscape of difference and diversity and should be inclusive of all tastes and types. There is a clear line of thought reflected here that tells of young people’s awareness of the different needs of their peers. The recognition and promotion of such diversity, if embraced, would improve school meals.
The meals should be better and we should have an Indian cook, an Italian cook, a Chinese cook for a good variety of food. (Thomas, age 11, Cardiff.)
Meals will be well cooked and healthy. They will be made from organic food and there will be a wide variety of vegetarian food and meals for different religious groups. It will be cheap and those who can’t afford it have free meals. (Isobel, age 14, Ipswich.)
At each end of the corridor there would be a nice water cooler which everyone could drink out of and… the canteen would have to sell nice new and exciting food which is healthy, but you don’t notice that it is. In the lunch break, I would enjoy a different meal from the one the day before. (Valerie, age 12, Glasgow.)
Even in the most unlikely scenarios and futuristic contexts, the dining room is still awarded pride of place.
My ideal school would be on top of a volcano so it would always be warm even in the winter… Inside there would be swimming pools, science labs, computer rooms and rooms to chill out in but most importantly, a dinner hall. But just because the dinner hall is inside, it doesn’t mean that the pupils can’t eat outside, maybe on the edge of the volcano! (Patrick, age 10) (See Plate 18.)
Fast food culture is certainly reflected in hundreds of entries to the ‘School I’d Like’ competition, 2001. But often, the emphasis is tempered by an acknowledgement that such food can be dull and uninspiring. Once more, variety, difference and diversity reflecting the community of the school are valued highly within these idealized environments. (See Plate 19.) ‘The canteen would have several different parts, one part would be McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut and a fancy restaurant which serves food from all over the world.’ (Aimee, age 12, Glasgow.)
Resistance to highly processed food is plentiful and it is clear that children are at least as aware as their parents of the poor nutritional value of the fast food market. These accounts betray an understanding of the primary function of food, but fun and fairness are paramount.
It just isn’t fair! Just because we are juniors it doesn’t mean we can’t have milk!!! Why can’t we have it, is it because we don’t need calcium? Or are our bones strong enough already, I don’t think so, or should we behave like infants to get it? Furthermore, we should have a fruit stall for when we have our break, instead of crisps and chocolate bars and what not, to help our immune system. (Bonnie Louise, age 10, Cardiff.)
The ideal edible landscape would not be institutional. Rather it should resemble the adult world where ‘the customer is always right’ and respect and care is taken as given.
In the school I’d like, we should be able to go for our dinner at any time that we want during the whole hour and ten minutes lunch break. They should also keep all the food hot. Grown ups wouldn’t stand for eating cold food so why should we! (Sarah, age 10, Sheffield.)
For a large number of children, the most exciting prospect of changing the edible landscape of school is to incorporate more of the patterns of consumption they associate with a good time outside of school. The incorporation of such features means that school resembles something other than a place of learning and becomes a place of fun. Choice translates into a choice between brands.
In the hall there will be a McDonald’s in a corner, a Burger King in a corner and a KFC in a corner.
In the classrooms it will be like chocolate land, that means you can eat the tables and chairs. You’re only allowed two pieces a lesson. (Amelia, age 10, Mytholmroyd.)
For breakfast, we will have a McDonald’s breakfast bar. The menu would be Egg muffin, sausages, hash browns and for drink we will have milkshake, milk and orange juice. (Anthony, age 10, Romford.)
I would have a McDonald’s in my ideal school because you absolutely have to eat, and I would have a canteen for those who do not like chips etc. (Lucy, age 10, Lichfield.)