Re-heated meals: Revisiting practical cookery in schools

by Guest Blogger, 12 November 2019
Practical cookery in schools

Practical cookery, the creation of prepared food dishes from raw ingredients, is a life skill. As such, it is of great interest to the education community. The extent to which it is taught in schools and incorporated into high stakes assessment has an impact upon whether young people emerge into adulthood equipped with the essential skills, knowledge and understanding they need.

There are, of course, some who would argue with the statement above. Who might say that the burden of responsibility is located within families and falls outside formal schooling. Others might say that practical cookery is not even a life skill – with the abundance of pre-prepared food available, the skills needed to purchase and use individual ingredients are no longer necessary to 21st century survival. However, media coverage of campaigns to improve healthy eating in adulthood and to discourage reliance on pre-prepared food would seem to contradict this.

Whatever the arguments, practical cookery lessons currently exist in schools in England in a fairly low-key context. At Primary level, early work is carried out on nutrition and healthy eating. In Key Stage 3 (age 11-14), in the early years of secondary education, students generally experience practical cookery in the context of the design and technology suite of subjects, usually on a rotating schedule. At Key Stage 4 (GCSE) and beyond, involvement in the subject is optional.

Originally conceived as ‘domestic science’ and intended as a subject for girls, it was adapted into Home Economics in the 1970s...
Cookery as a subject at Key Stages 3 & 4 in schools has a complex history. Originally conceived as ‘domestic science’ and intended as a subject for girls, it was adapted into Home Economics in the 1970s and later found a place in the Craft, Design and Technology suite of subjects. In the 2000s, various educational and media campaigns about food in schools raised awareness of declining practical skills and the government advocated the maintenance of food teaching in the curriculum and the development of skills for healthier lifestyles. A new Key Stage 3 programme of study was developed during 2007 and ‘Licence to Cook’, a compulsory cooking entitlement, was brought into schools in 2008. 

In Cambridge Assessment’s Research Division we have long taken an interest in practical cookery teaching in schools. In 2007 we carried out a very wide-ranging study which looked into the history of the wider subjects of Food Technology and Home Economics through materials from our archives, and surveyed teachers about the practicalities of teaching practical cookery at that time. 

It is a tricky research topic, being only a part of a subject sometimes considered ‘minority’ by virtue of small entries and the place it holds in the hierarchy of importance afforded to different school subjects. Academic journals and conferences sometimes require persuasion that research into such areas is worthy of publication. Nevertheless, we were undeterred. In 2017, ten years after our first survey of cookery teachers, we conducted a second, to which 95 teachers responded. What did we find?..

Positive comments from the teachers surveyed reflected enthusiasm for the new 9-1 GCSE specification and optimism for the value of the subject. The scientific content of the new qualification has been well-received and the three hour practical cookery assessment in the 9-1 GCSE was seen as giving an opportunity to tackle more challenging dishes compared to previous qualifications.

At both Key Stages we can clearly see the impact of the new reformed GCSE specification in the lists we have generated of skills and ingredients used in school cookery lessons. Certain ingredients, generally those associated with baking, have fallen in terms of frequency of use. Preparing raw meat, pastry making and pasta making have all increased in frequency, whilst baking cakes and biscuits has decreased. This strongly suggests that there has been a shift in the nature of the products being created in school and a push towards healthier eating.

There has been a shift in the nature of the products being created in school, and a push towards healthier eating.

A key theme which has emerged from the 2017 questionnaire is how little has changed since 2007 in terms of the situation in schools for teachers delivering practical cookery through the food curriculum. Some of those surveyed said they were struggling with time pressures for practical cookery, unsuitable class sizes, declining skills of students and a lack of support for students from home. In addition, some reported competing with other subjects for funding and status within their centre.  The withdrawal of an A Level route entirely, although largely beyond the scope of this study, is likely to promote effects which have yet to be seen at Key Stage 4. We can speculate that the effects might include fewer students opting for the GCSE in future because there is no natural progression along a traditional academic route to an A Level. This could, in the years to come, impact upon some centres’ funding for cookery facilities, resulting in an inevitable lack of provision for the subject at Key Stage 3.

Educating and re-educating our population about how to feed themselves is a topic which has become of huge concern to the climate change debate.

One last thought that I would like to reflect on is this... In 2007 we linked the literature around teaching cookery in schools to the growing concern about childhood and adult obesity and healthy eating campaigns. In 2017, educating and re-educating our population about how to feed themselves is a topic which has become of huge concern to the climate change debate as well – in terms of use of resources and disposal of materials and the nature of the food we eat.

What kind of practical cookery skills do you think are most important? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Gill Elliott and Jo Ireland, Cambridge Assessment Research Division

In 2017, we surveyed teachers of practical cookery in schools, in a repeat of a survey first carried out in 2007. Gill Elliott presented these survey findings at the Association for Educational Assessment (AEA) Europe annual conference 2019 in Portugal. 

Read the full conference paper on 'Re-heated meals: Revisiting the teaching, learning and assessment of practical cookery in schools'

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