Kitchen Nightmare on Lismore

Education Guardian

What children put into their mouths at lunchtime has become one of the touchstone political issues of our age and a money-saving plan by Argyll council in Scotland to shut six Hebridean island school kitchens was recently shot down by parental anger.

 The island kitchens at schools on Colonsay, Glenbarr, Lismore, Lochdonhead, Rhunahaorine and Skipness serve only very small numbers of children but parents argued they should get the same service as mainland children. On Colonsay, the kitchen also serves local pensioners who talk to the children in Gaelic.

But on Lismore, the council’s U-turn makes little difference, since there are no takers so far to fill the shoes of the last cook, Katy Crosson, who resigned in part because of frustration at having to follow central rules that took no account of the specialness of island life – and, some would argue, made her a victim of over-government.

Despite the fact that Lismore produces Highland beef, lamb, fish and shellfish and organic vegetables, the school kitchen is forced to work to long-range menus set by the Scottish parliament. The bulk of the ingredients are ordered by computer and brought from the mainland. Meals have to be calorie counted and several options offered.

Says Crosson: “In the past, the cook at the island school would have been able to make whatever she wanted and in the main that would have been traditional Scottish fare, the kind of thing that sticks to your ribs and is what island children need. They don’t live in inner-city flats, they run, they play outside, they burn everything off. I always worried whether I was fulfilling their nutritional needs giving them low-fat cheese.”

Sarah Campbell’s son Tom, who is 10, is one of 14 pupils at the primary school on Lismore. She says: “I feel packed lunches end up not being very good, the children compare, and the more rubbish they have, the more kudos. It is hard to vary sandwiches for a child so he ends up having ham every day.”

For Professor Alan Alexander, a member of Scotland’s audit commission, this is an example of what he sees as an unsolved problem of devolution, the sucking of local authority to Holyrood and the bureaucratisation of daily life. “When you start creating school lunch plans that have to be followed whether you are in Easterhouse or Colonsay, that is centralism gone mad.”

He says Scotland is failing to address the question of what local government is for after devolution. “Is local government just about imposing policies that are set centrally by the parliament?” In Scandinavia, he says, authorities are much smaller, which allows them to work more closely with local issues. While the politicians look for a solution, it seems that Tom may be on the ham sandwiches for some time.