PUPILS’ exam marks showed a huge improvement when they stopped eating unhealthy food, an experiment showed.
Researchers were astounded to see inspection ratings soar when dangerous hydrogenated fats, found in biscuits, cakes and burgers, were replaced with a healthy eating regime.
Nearly 4,000 schools took part in the Food For Life Partnership (FFLP), with more than twice as many receiving a grade of outstanding from education watchdog Ofsted.
Research carried out by a team from the University of the West of England also showed that pupils’ interest in healthy and sustainable foods had a “nudge effect” on their eating habits at home and their parents’ shopping habits.
The research showed that serving fresh food instead of harmful “trans fats” found in most processed foods had a quick effect on pupils’ academic achievement and behaviour.
Emma Noble, director of FFLP, said: “This is carrying on the healthy eating project in schools started by Jamie Oliver but this is a longer term project looking at what young people eat in and out of school.
“Very quickly they found that serving a child good food at lunchtime makes them four times more likely to concentrate in the afternoon.
“Young people visited farms to see where and how food is grown and how they can grow their own. We designed a practical programme for pupils, such as having them doing maths lessons outside on a farm as they learn about nature and where their food comes from.”
FFLP runs cooking lessons for pupils and parents, teaching both about why they should eat certain foods and avoid others.
“Schools set up gardens and it is amazing what children will eat if they have grown it themselves, often vegetables they would usually turn their noses up at,” said Emma. “The research showed they started asking for healthy options at home too.”
Libby Grundy, FFLP director, was delighted at the link revealed between performance and diet in children but worried that cuts to local authority school meal budgets may see the reintroduction of ready meals in schools.
She said: “With one in 10 children classed as obese just as the programme looks as if it has reached the tipping point, cuts to school meal budgets could undo all the good work.”
Ian Nurser, head teacher of St Peter’s Church of England School in Wem, Shropshire, said his youngsters were prepared to try any foods.
“We do a lot of cooking to make our pupils and parents aware of the range of food on offer,” he said.
“They are involved in growing the food, with each year having its own garden with a particular crop for which they are responsible and ends up in the school kitchen.
“When they choose school dinners, they have a ‘1, 2, 3’ process which they follow picking one carbohydrate, one portion of fresh vegetables and some meat to get the balance right.
“They are very proud of knowing what they should be eating and take a great interest in putting together a healthy meal each day.
“They all learn about links to local produce and really think about things. Our results have steadily improved since we started this project.
“What pupils are learning in the garden and how to cook to a high level are life skills not available to most young people, with 12 per cent of value added in terms of boosted results.”