Prue Leith: Teaching young people cooking skills will help to beat society’s ills

Girls at Portobello High School enjoying a home economics class in 1953 ' now the subject is set to make a comeback
Girls at Portobello High School enjoying a home economics class in 1953 ' now the subject is set to make a comeback
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There are still a few home economics teachers who, like me, have spent a long working life struggling with what is meant by home economics.

In the 1950s it was called domestic science and it meant training for girls and young women who were expected to be wives and mothers or ‘go into service’. The term became unfashionable in the late 1960s and was replaced by home economics but the subject was still about cooking, cleaning and sewing.

Prue Leith CBE, Chancellor of Queen Margaret University

Prue Leith CBE, Chancellor of Queen Margaret University

Then, with the 1970s enthusiasm for new ­technology, the practical aspects of cooking and sewing got lost in the ‘design and technology’ offer and was generally called food tech. Students more likely to design the packaging for a pizza than to make one. Many schools no longer offer home ­economics or food tech at all.

Not that it’s no longer needed or wanted. In my experience, home economics or food tech, where they are offered, are generally one of the most popular courses in schools. In some schools it is recognised as hugely important, because it allows students who might not be brilliant academically to shine. Good food teaching can be a step towards health, sharing, and understanding others.

The main problem is the lack of properly trained teachers. Which is why I am pleased and excited by Queen Margaret University’s new postgraduate diploma in home ­economics. January 15 sees the ­closing date for the first applications to PGDE Secondary (Home ­Economics), a course that will ­prepare teachers to inspire and ­enable students to care about their own wellbeing and that of ­others.

The course goes beyond the kitchen to address the links between food, healthy communities, social equity and conservation. It promotes understanding of ‘field to fork’ ­concerns around animal health and welfare, environmental impact, food production, and consumerism. It will examine citizenship in a global context, as well as promoting ­understanding of sexual, ­mental and physical health and how all these things are related to food and ­nutrition.

The course centres on the principles of healthy mind, healthy body, self-respect and wellbeing. These are not fashionable mantras, they are essential disciplines without which society will be unable to tackle the rising suicides, alienation, and growing obesity among young people. There is a greater need to teach young people what they need to look after themselves, and to grow as individuals and as members of their communities.

In a sense, Queen Margaret University has gone back to its roots. This course chimes with the aims of the university founders, Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright, who created the Edinburgh School of Cookery in 1875 (which became the Edinburgh School of Domestic ­Science, then Queen Margaret ­College and 11 years ago, QMU). These were extraordinary women of real influence; admirable campaigners for improved career opportunities for women, health and social justice.

These concerns still loom large in modern day ­Scotland but at least the Scottish ­Government’s campaign to address the national shortage of home ­economics teachers and to tackle issues around food inequality and food insecurity is both timely and hugely welcome.

Food poverty is clearly complex and multidimensional, and no one ­initiative will solve it. But there is no doubt that a contributing factor is a lack of cooking skills. The new approach to home economics designed by the experts at QMU will, we believe, reinvent how young ­people learn to cook, improving their knowledge of food, nutrition, health and wellbeing. If graduates of this new course are to be truly effective teachers, and able to spark their future pupils’ excitement about the importance and interconnectedness of food, we must first inspire them with a love of good food. And by good, I don’t just mean delicious.

The curriculum aims to develop knowledgeable consumers with an awareness of global citizenship and its responsibilities. The world needs people able to make sound judgements, appreciating the impact that developments in technology, materials and resources has on their choices.

One of the reasons I accepted the chancellorship of QMU was because I was thrilled by the university’s mix of the practical and academic. The course, with its practical classroom experience, and its research-driven academic learning, will provide the skills, not just to teach and inspire but to help young people become ­citizens of a planet in which food security is under threat, resources are finite and health challenges persist.

There will be collaboration with community organisations such as food banks and charities tackling food poverty and obesity.

The other thing that attracted me to QMU was the lack of interdepartmental rivalry. It seems ­colleagues of the division of psychology, sociology and education ­actually like working together and I am sure there will be close collaboration between the PGDE (Secondary) Home Economics and experts across the university in health sciences, ­gastronomy and nutrition.

That sounds like heavy overload, but let’s face it, food is seriously important. Learners will be encouraged to interrogate prevailing assumptions, practices and policy. Topics like food poverty, eating disorders and climate change will be explored. School counsellors, school nurses and other health ­specialists will run workshops on topics including body image, cyber bullying, child exploitation, welfare and rights.

I dream that future QMU graduates will successfully raise the image of the home ec teacher to where he or she deserves to be, a standard bearer for good food and health, vital to the happiness and wellbeing of students.

Prue Leith CBE, chancellor of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, will speak at the conference Biting Back: Transforming Food Experiences for Scotland’s Children, to be held at QMU on 20 March 2019.