Battle of a Wee Laddie’s Twix

While schools in some parts of the UK debate the issues surrounding burqas and niqabs in the classroom, Scottish educationists have their own human rights dilemma, centred on Twixes and Caramel Wafers. When a headteacher and school board attempted to ban sweets in packed lunches at an Edinburgh primary, some parents objected and the education authority forced the school to back down.

Both Labour and SNP politicians cast it as an issue of the parental right to decide what children eat, and say a ban is not the best way to deal with Scotland’s obesity problem. The Scottish executive posted suggested lunch-box menus on a website last week; experts said this was likely to appeal only to the converted.

The row began when headteacher Alasdair Friend – fresh from service in the London borough of Hackney, where he had won awards for a food policy that used local produce and banned sweets – decided to do something about the food culture of his new charges. Backed by the school board and 82% of parents who voted in a poll, he told children they were no longer allowed to bring confectionery to school. Any items brought in were confiscated, then handed back at the end of the day.

A few parents at Leith primary reacted with indignation. Some felt their parental rights were being infringed; others argued that the ban should not have covered chocolate biscuits, a particular favourite in Scotland.

“Mums’ fury over sweet ban” read the headline in the local paper, which reported that snacks had been “seized”. “What kind of Friend takes a wee laddie’s Twix away?” asked a columnist.

Outraged mother

A mother of two boys at the school, Janet McWhirter, was outraged when her children’s KitKats were confiscated. “No one told my mum and dad what to feed me. My kids don’t get sweets after school, but I like to put a treat in their lunch box.” She criticised the ban on grounds of inconsistency. “School-meal kids get cake and things like that. And there is sugar in fruit. Have these people any idea how much sugar is in a banana?”

Before the Evening News hit the streets, the Labour-led council told the head he did not have the authority to ban sweets.

Friend seems bemused by the furore. “I’ve been told very firmly that I must go through the local authority press office,” he told Education Guardian when asked for his comments. The press office refused to allow an interview with him.

Andrew Burns, leader of the children and families committee, later issued a prepared statement: “We don’t think it’s helpful, or feasible, to absolutely demand of parents what they should – and should not – give their children to eat in school. These initiatives have to be a partnership between a school and the community.”

But some parents are bewildered that a ban which enjoys wide support cannot be imposed. Kate Marks, mother of pupil Ellie, says: “I just find it absurd that the parents voted for the ban, the school board supports it, and the head isn’t allowed to put it in place. It makes me feel like I don’t know who is running the school. It makes the head look as if he has no authority.”

For other Scots schools that are operating bans, there is now an element of doubt. A senior source at an Edinburgh school (which is also not officially allowed to talk to the press) says: “We operate a strong policy of discouragement. If we see children with sweets, we tell them to put them away and eat them later. We are still doing that. I don’t know if it would stand up if a parent took us to court under human rights legislation, but we feel that it is an important part of being a health-promoting school.”

Sheila McLean, a professor of law and medical ethics at Glasgow University, thinks there is no legal problem. “I think any claim under human rights legislation would be very dubious. There is the right to privacy and family life, but I don’t think that would be a runner here. Schools are in loco parentis, and have a duty to look after the welfare of the child. This school is obviously trying to be very responsible.”

Cathy McCulloch, of the Scottish children’s parliament, says: “This isn’t a rights issue. Children don’t have the right to whatever they want, whenever they want it, just as adults don’t. But I’m not in favour of bans, because I think people are much more likely to make a change if they understand why.

“At children’s parliament events, we serve chopped-up fruit that looks appetising, and we ask children to save their sweets for later.”

Professor Eric Wilkinson, an educationist from Glasgow University, says Friend should have been aware of the different administrative arrangements north of the border, and known that any such rule can only be imposed by the council. He feels it is “overstepping the mark” to ban sweets. “A sweetie in the playground doesn’t make a child obese. I would have thought being able to do some things they like would be commensurate with liberal values.”

Strong action

But Green party education spokesman and former teacher Robin Harper, MSP, disagrees. He argues that Scotland, which now has the worst child obesity problem in the world, with a third of kids overweight or obese, has to take strong action. “We have banned adults from smoking in public places, so I think we can ban children from bringing sweets into school. If I had been on the council, I would have backed this head up, not just for the ban but for the way he went about it, with lots of consultation.”

In England, bans are common. John Brown, the head of Holmesdale community infants’ school, in Reigate, Surrey, says: “We have a sweet ban here and have done for many years. I would be very angry if my local education authority didn’t back me up on something like that.”

Professor Walter Humes of Paisley University says: “Local authorities in Scotland have a paternalistic and authoritarian attitude. They are hanging on to their directing role in relation to schools. But they ought to be careful. There are not many people at the moment saying that schools should be taken out of local authority control, but there are some. You don’t need to be on the extreme right to see that this is an issue for debate. The only people who can really make a difference in schools are the heads, and the other people on the front line.” Problems with recruiting heads, he adds, are not helped by hampering their work and barring them from speaking publicly.

Chris Woodhead, now professor of education at Buckingham University, says: “The way they do things in Scotland is antediluvian. The authority should respect the headteacher and not undermine his authority with the children and parents. It is ridiculous. I can’t understand the point either of creating governing bodies and then not giving them any authority, as has happened in Scotland. That is just a waste of time.”

The Guardian
Tuesday March 27, 2007