School building programmes were already ambitious but now there's another challenge - to offer cookery facilities in all schools by 2011
Ed Balls' announcement last week that compulsory cooking lessons were to be introduced into all secondary schools by 2011 has all the ingredients for a spicy policy announcement.
For a start, it's an eye-catching cause, perfectly in tune with current anxieties over child obesity. And on paper, it should be easy to deliver, as 85% of secondary schools are equipped to provide some form of cookery teaching anyway. But thirdly, teachers' leaders have pointed out that the requirement - only one hour a week for one term per pupil - can't be fitted into an already crowded curriculum.
Given that construction is facing the prospect of having to deliver a £2bn a year programme with Building Schools for the Future, the impact of this announcement on the construction industry is inconsequential. For individual schools and colleges, the change might be a bit more taxing.
The switch from "optional" to compulsory cooking lessons by September 2008, for schools with food preparation facilities, is a challenge in itself, as there is little point in running the programme unless the kids come out of it with a better appreciation of cooking and food in general. Does anything need to be done to existing facilities and teaching methods to make the lessons inspirational rather than just fit for purpose? Has cash been allocated and is the problem understood?
Moreover, for the 15% of schools that don't have facilities, the question is what do these institutions have to do by 2011 to make sure that they are properly equipped? The space requirement is quite substantial - 90m2 for a 15 person classroom, the equipment costs about £50,000 and then there's all of the hassle with installing plumbing, gas and so on into existing buildings.
For the 15% of schools that don't have facilities, the question is what do these institutions have to do by 2011 to make sure that they are properly equipped?
Apparently, the lack of food technology facilities is in most instances a legacy of single sex schools - some of which will no doubt benefit from a BSF overhaul before 2011. Others in later waves, well-to-do grammar schools for example, are unlikely to be redeveloped in time, and therefore face the prospect of having to provide short life facilities - which could be wasteful.
The other intriguing aspect of the introduction of this policy concerns the ability of the latest crop of Academies and PFI schools to accommodate change. Just suppose that some of these schools were developed without facilities for what are currently "optional" classes - either due to curriculum priorities or pressure on budgets or floor areas - will the building layouts and systems readily accommodate these specialist facilities? And what current space might have to be sacrificed to make room? Furthermore, in the case of PFI, just how easy will it be for schools or Education Authorities to negotiate the change in their service agreement, and how much will it cost over the life of the agreement?
As an industry, we can focus on the space planning or the services coordination to put the kit in place, but at the end of the day it is the quality of the teacher and the amount of time spent cooking, not the teaching space and equipment, that will turn our kids into the next generation of Jamie Olivers.
One hour a week for a single term hardly feels like a revolution, but its a start. Even with this modest aim. More than 800 extra teachers are needed, and those already in place might need some help in the switch from rock cakes to risotto. In this instance, the biggest help that construction could make in implementing this policy would be to make sure that we encourage our own kids to cook more at home rather than waiting for the construction orders to come in.