A taste for school dinners

A specialist school is breaking new ground by letting students cook for their teachers and peers - with some of the young chefs gaining an NVQ in catering. Julie Griffiths reports

A specialist school is breaking new ground by letting students cook for their teachers and peers – with some of the young chefs gaining an NVQ in catering. Julie Griffiths reports

(Picture: Steven Phillips, see below, prepares lunch at Heathermount with chef co-ordinator Tina Seddon)

Few students with special education needs can boast that they cook school dinners for their teachers and peers. But those at Heathermount School in Ascot, Berkshire, have been doing so for four years.

Heathermount is a specialist school for five- to 19-year-olds with autism and is run by Autism Spectrum partners, a division of The Disabilities Trust. The culinary initiative, in which students help to cook school meals, is part of Heathermount’s real world learning activities and the NVQ Level 1 catering assessment criteria.

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All 42 students do two hours per week cooking as part of the national curriculum but some have developed a particular interest in catering. At present, eight students are working for their Level 1 certificate in hospitality. The youngest student to contribute to school meals was nine and three students have gone on to a career in catering.

Chef co-ordinator Tina Seddon says: “They start off learning the basics, such as soup, scrambled eggs and frittata. Then they progress to needing to get the food ready for service at midday.”

As well as teaching students life skills, such as the importance of hygiene and how to cook for themselves, Seddon says cooking has caused students’ self-esteem and confidence to soar.

“It’s phenomenal to see someone who would not even look at you before talking in an interesting way about a dish,” she says. “It’s about being in touch with what they could be good at. When you praise them, they smile and look so happy.”

Students often make soups, desserts and cottage pie and teachers become part of the quality control. “Sometimes the presentation is a little off but that’s OK because we’re not a hotel or restaurant,” Seddon says.

Students are taught in a separate small kitchen, but a redevelopment is due to start this autumn. Once complete, students will work alongside the school chefs in an industrial-sized space.

Student graduates to day centre catering

Steven Phillips had little experience of cooking when he started working in the school kitchen four years ago but his passion for food led to a part-time job in a local day centre.

The 19-year-old, who has autism, started at the end of July and describes it as one of his proudest achievements, especially so because he had to go through a selection process.

“I was over the moon to get it and I’m enjoying every second,” he says. “I’m working in the kitchen and I run errands for them, make teas and coffees and do the washing up.”

During his time in the school kitchen, he learned how to barbecue, make cakes and pastries, but his favourite meals are spaghetti bolognese and curry, which he often makes for himself in the evenings.

Phillips says he particularly enjoys cooking for school functions. “It’s one of the best things in the world to see other people enjoying what you have made. I love seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they enjoy my food.”

His job has provided new challenges, such as disciplined time-keeping; he starts his school day early and finishes later to accommodate his 11am-3.30pm working hours.

“There are many different people coming through the door every day at the day centre,” he says. “At school, it was mostly the same people. I’m also dealing with more orders coming in, different situations and menus every day.”

The experience has whetted his appetite for a career in food and his ambition is to work in a restaurant. When he graduates from Heathermount next year, Phillips hopes to continue working or sign up to a further education college course in catering.

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