Food and Behaviour Research

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29 March 2010 - The Sunday Times - Jamie Oliver's school dinners 'are more effective than literacy hour'

by Joanna Sugden

Eating Jamie Oliver's school dinners improves children's performance in tests, according to researchers who claim that the celebrity chef's campaign to improve school food has had more impact than government literacy programmes.

Download File: Download the associated research paper here (366.07 KB)

The findings of the two-year study indicate that scores in national curriculum tests at 11 rose in English and science at schools where Oliver’s menus were introduced.

Control schools, where junk food was still available, showed smaller or negligible improvements, researchers said.

The news comes as more than half of teachers in a union survey said that classroom behaviour worsened after pupils had eaten a high-sugar or fatty meal.

Forty-two per cent of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said food served at their school was pre-cooked off-site and reheated in the school kitchen.

Researchers at Oxford and Essex universities said that Oliver’s televised campaign to transform the eating habits of pupils by banning unhealthy options from school canteens and introducing more fruit and vegetables had “improved educational achievement”.

The chef was blamed for a decline in take-up of school meals after he exposed the poor quality of food in 2005 and forced the Government to raise nutritional standards.

But in a paper presented to the Royal Economical Society today, researchers said that his campaign was a “unique opportunity to assess the causal effects of diet and educational outcomes”.

The proportion of pupils reaching level 4, the standard expected at the end of primary school, in English increased by 4.5 percentage points. The number of those reaching level 5 — the top grade — in science rose by 6 per cent two years after the new menus were put in place.

“The effects we have identified are comparable in magnitude to those estimates... for the literacy hour,” the researchers said.

The compulsory hour of literacy for all primary school children, brought in under Labour, had increased the proportion of pupils reaching level 4 in reading by 3.2 per cent, the researchers added.

The improvements noted by the Healthy School Meals and Educational Outcomes study, were small but significant, “given that these effects are within a relatively short horizon and given that the campaign was not directly targeted at improving educational outcomes”.

Researchers looked at test results from the 80 schools in the London borough of Greenwich which formed the pilot for Oliver’s school dinner project. They used neighbouring local authorities as a control group.

The academics failed to find evidence that the campaign specifically helped children on free school meals — a measure of social deprivation.

“On the contrary the campaign seemed to have affected most the children from richer socio-economic backgrounds,” the study said.

“This is not necessarily counter-intuitive; it is not unreasonable that children from favourable socio-economic backgrounds adjust more easily to changes in school meals than children from poor socio-economic backgrounds.”

Pre Jamie

Mains: burgers and chips, sausage rolls, fish fingers, turkey drummers, chicken dinosaurs.

Desserts: sponge pudding and custard, milkshake and home-made biscuit, fruit salad.

Post Jamie

“Proper” sausages, creamy mash and peas and sweetcorn followed by vanilla sponge and custard.

Chicken and mushroom casserole and fruit crumble and custard.

Roast Beef, roast potatoes, green beans and gravy followed by fresh fruit platter and custard.