Food for the soul

Food for the soul

I read with interest earlier this week the findings from a new survey by children's charity Barnardo's into what is troubling young people, and how they might be better supported. A couple of the key points were that school is the biggest source of stress for 65 percent of young people, and that body weight was a source of stress for 26 percent. These are concerns that understandably make headlines year after year, becoming no less worrying for it, and so too are they concerns that, as a school, we work hard to support students with every day. 

We recently conducted a survey of our own, asking our parents for their feedback about different areas of the school’s provision, and I was delighted to note that our care for each individual girl’s development is widely appreciated. At the Junior School "the way pupils are treated as individuals and the school's concern for each girl's well-being” were rated particularly highly by parents and at the Senior School "the school's concern for [students’] well-being" was positively endorsed by parents. In fact, our school was one of the two highest scoring schools on this point when compared to other senior girls' schools who have undertaken a similar survey by the same research company.

From the results of the Barnardo’s survey it was also interesting to learn that three quarters of 12 to 16 year olds think it would be helpful if they had a counsellor or another professional at their school to talk to when they are feeling down. Again, we were uplifted to see in our survey results how well regarded the support structures are at our school, especially our trio of independent listener, school counsellor, Mrs Yvonne Green, and Lay Chaplain, Mrs Kay Dodsworth.

Reflecting on the Barnardo’s survey, Mrs Dodsworth pointed out that “nearly half of 12 year olds report feeling sad or anxious at least once a week” shouldn’t necessarily be making headlines; there are, of course, problems with teenage mental health but teenagers feeling sad once a week is not usually a sign of poor mental health. She said:

“It is entirely normal to be sad at least once a week, especially given the exposure to 'bad news' we all experience. I sometimes wonder whether people who write about these things exacerbate the problem by leading youngsters to think you are only 'successful' or 'normal' if you are happy all the time. The human condition is more nuanced than that…”

Coincidentally this week has also seen the first of our St Mary’s School, Cambridge well-being at work weeks. In considering their well-being, we wanted to celebrate our staff and take the time to uphold having a healthy work life balance. Events have ranged from teachers’ pension information sessions run by Wesleyan Finance, to DIY SOS support from Trevor and Eric from our spectacular Works department; mindfulness techniques led by Mrs Dodsworth and fitness for all run by Miss Nicky Lees; and fully-clad sports massages for anyone in need!

I picked out the two headline figures at the beginning of this article as I wanted to write this week about food and nutrition in addition to well-being. Food was a topic that was raised in our recent parent survey and the links between young people’s well-being and their understanding of food and nutrition, weight-management and personal health and fitness, are evident.

It is the duty of educators to provide students of all ages with the knowledge to be able to make well-informed choices about their diets but also to equip them with the skills required to prepare and budget for these choices as they begin to make decisions for themselves as they mature.   

In terms of formal teaching about food and nutrition, students in Year 7 to Year 9 have one lesson per month, in small groups (half a form group at once). The lessons are practical in nature, to build the girls’ skills over the three years. They start in Year 7 with knife skills and the importance of eating five a day, learning to make a vegetable couscous salad before moving on to make higher skilled dishes like Cornish pasties, which require rolling, filling, crimping and glazing pastry, and they will also learn about British cuisine and the history of food. Throughout these practical lessons Head of Technology, Mrs Rebecca Landshoff, demonstrates and asks relevant questions in order to stimulate the girls’ thinking about presentation, flavours, safety and hygiene etc. as well as food science and nutrition. Students might conduct experiments, for example testing making cakes with different sugars; biscuits with different fats; or yeast in different solutions or temperatures. 

Mrs Landshoff runs a popular cooking club every Monday, rotating the lower year groups in order for Year 7 to Year 9 students to have the opportunity enhance their culinary skills. Year 7 students have focused on baking or cooking something new together and last week made some particularly delicious shortbread biscuits. The group has also baked savoury pancakes and cheese twists, as well as festive cookies before Christmas. After half term it will be the turn of Year 8 students and we look forward to hearing about their culinary concoctions! Students in Year 9 to Year 11 can opt for extra-curricular sessions and, in the Sixth Form, students experience a five-week course with Mrs Landshoff in which they contemplate cooking for themselves after school, perhaps at university, as well as budgeting, batch cooking, using up leftovers effectively: Real Life!

This week I was delighted to attend our GCSE Food Technology students’ practical exam – for which each student spent three hours cooking up a three course meal, of which I was one such lucky judge. The girls served up fish cakes, quiche and soufflé followed by beef wellington, tagliatelle bolognese and lasagne and finished with desserts including pavlova, roulade, tart and a range of cheesecakes. These dishes were very well presented, tasted delicious and everything was made from scratch – the pastry, the pasta, the biscuits for the cheesecake, and the bread for rolls or bruschetta; the chicken was deboned, the fish filleted, and so on. Well done to each of the girls for pulling off such an impressive feat-cum-feast! It’s all very well learning about the science behind healthy eating, but if young people don’t also learn about food preparation and develop the resources and confidence to manage a healthy diet, then their nutritional learning will go to waste.

Alongside girls’ learning about food and nutrition, we work hard to establish positive attitudes to food in a number of ways. We have a generous lunch time which is split into two sessions – this means that girls who want to join in a particular club or activity can do so during either the first or second lunch session, while still being able to take a good amount of time in the other session to relax, to chat with friends and to eat informally together. The girls help themselves to food from a buffet with a wide selection of hot and cold food and are able to select whatever and however much they like - we believe that encouraging young people to make choices about what they eat and drink is essential. All food is labelled and care is taken to cater for students with medical or religious dietary needs wherever possible. We also encourage students to continually review the food provision and provide regular feedback through our fortnightly Student Council meetings.

Our boarders enjoy “restaurant quality” food at Mary Ward House, according to feedback I received just this week from students after a delicious dinner consisting of roasted figs with goat’s cheese wrapped in Parma ham, a green bean, goat’s cheese and sundried tomato side dish and a mushroom pasta dish. By all accounts the girls were “raving about it”!

It bears remembering that eating together – being sociable at mealtimes and unwinding with company – is linked to well-being! The British Nutrition Foundation recommends sitting down to eat with friends or family at least three times a week. Perhaps over the half term break we might all find additional opportunities to simply get together and enjoy eating!

I wish you all a very happy half term.