School food standards and Michael Gove

You don’t have to be the most avid politics fan in the world to notice that Education Secretary Michael Gove is a really quite zealous Minister. More than anyone else in this Government – or, perhaps, any government in recent years – Mr Gove has pushed through his agenda of converting local-authority supervised schools into self-governing academies and creating entirely new, independent free schools.

This doesn’t mean doing things by half; it means self-governing schools should be self-governing schools, able to set their own rules and be free of the heavy hand (as Mr Gove sees it) of government interference. This includes the ability to serve whatever food and drink they like to their own children.

For four years now Mr Gove has resisted efforts to extend the nutritional standards for school meals, developed in the wake of Jamie Oliver’s mid-2000s expose of school food, to academies. As more and more children have entered academies, these food rules have seemed increasingly pointless: eventually all schools will be academies and, for people such as Mr Oliver at least, school children will be back to square one: plates full of turkey twizzlers washed down with fizzy drinks.

In the 2000s, people such as Mr Oliver fought parents handing chips through the school railings: they did not expect to be fighting the Secretary of State for Education. The anger amongst campaigners who shared Mr Oliver’s views was therefore intense and understandable.

They have facts on their side – childhood obesity rates are declining, but only slightly and slowly, and the problem is still acute, yet Mr Gove seemed to be standing on principle rather than using the power of the state to help (and, as people noted, better school food standards would help the poorest children more than any other).

It looks as if, however, a compromise has been hammered out. From January 2015 school food standards will be mandatory for local authority schools, new free schools and schools that convert to academies.

These standards, which replace those inspired by Mr Oliver, will see schools have to provide more fruit and vegetables, promote wholegrain foods in place of refined carbohydrates and restrict the availability of fried food. They are “clear and concise” and “less expensive to enforce” says Mr Gove, yet without compromising on nutritional quality.

Most people, including Mr Oliver, welcome the new rules – as well they would, as they are not hugely different to those they replace. This begs the question as to why it took Mr Gove four years of resistance before accepting standards broadly similar to the ones that have been replaced.

In addition, these rules won’t apply to academies (or the much smaller number of free schools) created between 2010 and 2014 to avoid “cumbersome new legislation to introduce a post-dated clause” says the Government. Though the Government is asking academies to make a voluntary commitment to adopting these standards, the exception seems arbitrary – it simply means that a chunk of the population will eat food and drink that is of a worse nutritional standard to that consumed by other children.

It’s a bit of a mess really. A solution has been arrived at, eleven months before a General Election, to a problem that – with a little bit of flexibility – need not have existed in the first place. Mr Gove’s acolytes have recently had a lot to say about the making of government policy; perhaps here’s a case study in how not to do it.