Sunday, 17 February 2013

Children learning cooking in schools

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I've been following the recent stories about children learning to cook in school with some interest.  It's taken me a while to unpick my thoughts because I have a few contradictory ones.

I'm all in favour of children learning how to cook - I think it's normal and natural for children to be involved in cooking.  In fact, I think cooking is in many ways a rather childish activity.  I think I partially enjoy it because of the sense of play and the ability to be messy in a socially acceptable way.  I like being able to do things with my hands, whether that's separating eggs with my fingers or shaping dough or whatever.  

Let's face it, this sort of thing is just plain fun.
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However, I'm not sure how I feel about children learning to cook in schools.  I'm not sure that I think that learning to cook should be done in a classroom kind of setting, I think that's almost separating it out from its natural context.  I think the way to learn to cook is to be given little tasks to do that ramp up in difficulty as you get better - when you're very little, you pod peas and peel cloves of garlic and then you progress to chopping things and then seasoning and then more advanced things like making dough and higher risk things like rotis and frying things like bhajiyas.  And I think it's important that that isn't separated out into a "now you learn to cook for an hour" but just part of your day to day life.

But, on the other hand, I get that not everyone is lucky enough to have families who cook and to learn how to cook in that kind of context and - obviously - I think they too should get to learn how to cook.  Because I think cooking is an important life skill for so many reasons - it's important for your health, it's important for your finances, it's important because it's fun and more people should have more fun.  

So, maybe, learning how to cook in school wouldn't be so bad.  But then I think about how none of the various articles that I've seen (perhaps I've missed one) on this subject have mentioned at all the cultural issues in play.  I mean, take this article from the Telegraph which describes at the end dishes that the author thinks that everyone should know how to make - a fair amount of meat in there which isn't going to work for vegetarian children, a couple of things that sound like they aren't Kosher and Indian food is all covered with "daal" and "curry"...  Now, obviously, schools in areas with large numbers of say Indian students or Muslim students or Jewish students or whatever are going to tailor that curriculum for their school but what happens when you are - as I was at one school - the only vegetarian kid in the whole school?  Do you just sit out the lessons that cover how to make a roast chicken or do you get a carrot to roast instead?  No-one seems to have thought about these issues at all.

I'm not suggesting that all these cooking classes should cover is vegetarian food as that would - of course - be a bit insane as many of the children will not be vegetarian and so will not really find that useful.  But I think it does bring home that food is so personal and so cultural that trying to teach it to a whole group of children with different backgrounds and assumptions is opening up a can of worms.  Because - at the end of the day - cooking is really quite different from other things that are taught in school.  There are so many different ways to do it and so many different ways to achieve a healthy balanced diet that, inevitably, it's going to be difficult when one way is taught.  

Now, I'm sure there are ways to get around this - teaching a wide variety of dishes from different traditions and focusing on techniques rather than straightforward recipes - but it's going to be incredibly difficult and I, perhaps overly cynically, rather doubt that many schools are going to teach anything other than "classic" British cooking plus a token nod towards chicken tikka masala or some other completely anglicised Indian dish.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

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