Education Secretary Michael Gove missed an opportunity when he unveiled new standards for school meals, a teaching union has claimed.
The new standards, which crackdown on fatty and sweet foods, were made compulsory for all maintained schools, new academies and free schools yesterday.
But the rules – which are a simplified version of the existing school food code introduced under the previous Labour government – won’t be applied retrospectively and will only apply to new academies and free schools yet to open.
Last night Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, welcomed the decision, but said it was “a missed opportunity” in allowing existing academies and free schools to opt out.
“This will mean that over half of state-funded secondary schools and over 10% of primaries in England will only be required to sign up to the standards on a voluntary basis.
“Parents of children in these schools will rightly be unhappy that the Government is failing to deliver the same guarantee of minimum nutritional food standards for all school,” Ms Blower said.
Gove was criticised by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for allowing academies and free schools to “erode” the tougher rules introduced after Oliver had publicised the poor quality and nutrition of school lunches.
This time, the Department for Education hopes that the 1,500 academies and free schools that opened in England between 2010 and 2014 will voluntarily sign up to the new regulations. Academies created under Labour were already required to adopt national food standards.
Mr Gove said: “These new food standards will ensure all children are able to eat healthy, nutritious meals at school.
“We now have a clear and concise set of food standards which are easier for cooks to follow and less expensive to enforce. Crucially we have achieved this without any compromise on quality or nutrition. There has been a great deal of progress in providing healthy school meals in recent years and these new standards will help deliver further improvements.”
Under the new rules, pupils will only be offered two portions of deep-fried, battered and breadcrumb-coated foods each week.
Pastry-based dishes will be subject to the same restrictions, schools will be completely banned from offering chocolate and confectionery in canteens and tuck shops, and salt will not be available for pupils to add to food after it is cooked.
Ashley Adamson, professor of Public Health Nutrition at Newcastle University and member of the School Food Plan expert group and standards panel, said: “The new School Food Standards are just one part of the School Food Plan and are the result of extensive deliberations, consultation and testing.
“The standards offer all those involved in the delivery of school food an exciting opportunity to build on the excellent progress made in school food so far and make sure all our children have what they deserve, that is, the best possible food of the highest quality and nutritional value.”
Despite previous standards, introduced between 2006 and 2009, improving school food, they were complicated and expensive to enforce.
Cooks had to use a special computer program to analyse the nutritional content of every menu. Often, they ended up following three-week menu plans sent out by centralised catering teams who would do the analysis for them, meaning they couldn’t be creative.