There are many differences between schools in the UK and schools in Japan and while working here I often day-dream of 'The Perfect Blend'; where the best bits of British Schools and the best bits of Japanese schools fuse into the Perfect System where every student achieves, everyone is happy, everyone is self-sufficient and everyone is healthy.
Maybe the key feature I'd like to see change in the UK is school dinners. Back home, school dinners have a reputation for being tasteless, junk food consisting of 95% fat (and my later experiences of school dinners certainly reinforce that reputation). I gave up with school dinners and took my dinner money to the local chippy for tasty junk food instead. Sometimes I'd have a packed lunch which would have cheese and resconstituted ham sandwiches, crips, chocolate, fizzy drink and an apple. Three options of differing taste but probably of equal nutritonal value.
So how does Japanese school dinners compare. Well there are two distinct systems I'm exposed to; one for senior high schools and one for junior high schools.
In senior high schools, students are encouraged to bring their own 'bento' lunch. FOr those that don't have a bento, or those who fancy a little extra, we have "Pan-ya san" (literally, 'bread shop man' so 'the baker'). The bakery comes to the high school with four trays full of bread related snacks; sandwiches, rolls, sweet breads etc. and the students buy as much or as little as they like.
In junior high schools, lunch is provided for the students. The lunch is provided to my school by outside caterers. Just before lunch, a team of students don white aprons and serve the lunch into plates and onto the tables. When they are done and all 90 meals are laid out, the other students (and myself) are allowed into the lunch room and the school can eat. The meal each day has a similar structure; a bowl of rice, some kind of soup, some kind of meat or fish, some kind of vegetable dish or salad, fruit for dessert and a carton of milk. Each meal is a different combination of salads, fish, meat and fruits but each meal provides an example of a good balanced diet. And it's always delicious, even if some of the dishes look a bit strange.
Maybe a key thing about school dinners in Japan is that students are not allowed to leave the school during school hours. If the senior high students don't want just bread for lunch, they should bring a bento and if they don't bring a bento and don;t want bread then they have to hungry until the end of school. If the junior high students don't want the healthy school meal, then they have to hungry until the end of school. It might be a heavy-handed way to force students (at least junior high students) to eat at least one healthy meal a day, but it certainly is no hardship.
This September in the UK, new Government guidelines for healthier school meals were introduced
. Among the recommendations are:
"that pupils have least two servings a day of fruit and vegetables, that oily fish should be served at least once every three weeks and bread must be available every day.
Schools should also provide free, fresh drinking water and salt should not be available at lunch. Ketchup and mayonnaise should only be available in sachets and schools will be restricted to serving no more than two portions of deep-fried foods in a week. Manufactured meat products such as chicken nuggets may only be served occasionally.
The only savoury snacks available at lunchtime should be nuts and seeds with no added salt, fat or sugar"
Very healthy intentions indeed and ones that could potentially improve students diets and along with it their health and studying ability. And if the students pick up some healthy eating habits, the all the better.
But naturally, there has been some resistance to the School Meal Reform
. Students in the UK, unable to get junk food from school, are taking their dinner money and spending it outside school. This means the catering companies, who also provided the vending machines before they were banned, are losing profits and are complaining to the government.
My worry is that if the catering companies lobby enough, the healthy meal guidelines might be taken back, the school meal situation goes back to square one and another set of obese, attention-defecit citizens are created for the future of the UK. It would be better if the catering companies could lobby to have the students restricted to school grounds during lunchtime (like in Japan) but then I'm sure some people will cry out about a "restriction of students' freedom of choice" and maybe some kind of "blow for democracy". (In my opinion, students, being immature, are so prone to the powerful influences of advertising and media that any choice is unlikely to be of their own true freewill. Likewise, denying students a choice is hardly a blow for democracy since you have to be at least 18 years old to be eligable to vote)
Right, time to get off my soapbox and go for lunch with the junior high students.