This article explores the history, development, and future of nutrition education in UK primary schools. It details the importance of effective food and nutrition education in early years, and considers the major hurdles it faces, as well as the solutions being implemented to maximise it’s potential. It will also explore the pathways forward for teachers, schools, and institutions, and how curriculum changes can be supported to effectively bring about positive behavioural and cultural change.
The importance of nutrition education
Good nutrition is essential for the mental and physical development of children. However, childhood undernutrition and overnutrition remain major challenges in the UK (NNEdPro, 2021). Nutrition education underpins improving nutritional status, and provides people with the knowledge, skills and motivation to make wise dietary and lifestyle choices. Understanding and improving the landscape of nutrition education delivery and support for children is therefore of high importance.
Centres of education offer a perfect platform to address issues related to food, diet, nutrition and health, as well as environmental issues. These institutions, which include pre-school facilities, schools, universities and technical training centres, among others, represent a key pathway to increasing nutrition education. NNEdPro is striving to improve nutrition education, and has fought alongside many other industry players for the implementation of nutrition education into the UK medical curriculum. Whilst efforts continue, the launch of the AfN’s UK medical nutrition curriculum in October 2021 represents a major stride forward to achieving this shared mission (AfN, 2021).
The benefits of nutrition education extend beyond the direct gain of knowledge related to food and nutrition. Being taught about nutrition relays a signal that it is important enough for it to be taught. This is vital in shifting culture to a place where food and nutrition are valued and prioritised. This idea is not just true for nutrition education in the medical curriculum. The same is true for nutrition education in school settings, such as primary schools.
Benefits of nutrition education in primary schools
Behaviours, beliefs and attitudes start to develop at a young age, meaning intervention during these years offers a valuable opportunity to positively shape the lives of children, and in doing so shape the cultures and beliefs of future societies. For nutrition to be a positive, prioritised part of this society and culture, it should be ingrained in such a way that it can be shared and explored. Schools are a setting for the delivery of structured learning, and simultaneously offer an arena for the exploration of food and nutrition, in which pupils can develop behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. They are one of the main social contexts in which lifestyle habits are developed, meaning food should therefore be part of this picture. Simultaneously, a key responsibility of primary schools is to equip children with the life skills and capacity to support their wellbeing. Given the vital role of nutrition in a healthy, fulfilled life, nutrition education must not be overlooked.
More widely, schools provide a perfect platform for action, through a ready-made learning environment, facilities for physical activity and food service as well as the opportunity for engagement with peers, parents and teachers. Furthermore, schools are a well-equipped vehicle for nutrition education as they provide opportunities to practise healthy eating and food safety through school feeding programmes, and through the sale of food on premises.
They can be a channel for community participation, for example via school garden projects or school canteens, or through local intersectoral committees. Moreover, nutrition lessons can be made simple, interesting, colourful and easily learned by demonstration, illustration and practical action – approaches which are valuable in primary school settings. Moreover, primary school nutrition education can go beyond improving the knowledge, and even health of students. It has the potential to empower students to become active participants and future leaders in shaping the food environment and food systems that are better able to deliver healthy and sustainable diets.
Background on nutrition education in UK primary schools
Over the years, nutrition education has been, and in many settings remains to be a low priority. There has traditionally been a lack of understanding and clarity on the content relating to food & nutrition as a subject, with multiple revisions of the curriculum leaving teachers confused and unable to navigate it (JOFF, 2017). These issues were exacerbated by a lack of understanding of the standards for food & nutrition teaching, in addition to a lack of evaluation of this teaching.
Other programmes have been developed to support primary school nutrition education over the last few decades. These include the Children’s Food Trust’s ‘Let’s Get Cooking’, and the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme. There also exists a variety of corporate resources and school offers, including voucher schemes for cooking equipment, store or farm visits and competitions.
British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) launches Food – a Fact of Life, which provides free teaching resources for young people aged 3-16 which cover food, where it comes from, cooking, and healthy eating. It is not an intervention programme but rather a bank of resources and materials to support the delivery of nutrition education in schools. It aims to provide a comprehensive, progressive programme that communicates up to date, evidence based, consistent and accurate messages about food and nutrition. The evolution of this programme’s curriculum, technology and pedagogy have brought it from the medium of physical resources and VHS tapes, to fully-online support with dynamic resources and interactive features (Ballam, 2021).
Cooking and food education became compulsory in the national curriculum for pupils up to the end of key stage three as part of the School Food Plan (Dimbleby & Vincent, 2013). In the UK, each of the four nations has its own distinct curriculum, however key learnings are consistent between them. The curricula for England for key stage one and two required pupils to understand and apply the basic principles of a healthy and varied diet and develop and understanding of where food and ingredients come from. The curriculum for key stage three extends to the practical preparation and cooking of predominantly savoury dishes using a range of cooking techniques.
To further support food and nutrition education, Public Health England, BNF, Food Teachers Centre, and other key players produced a new framework for food teaching standards in UK schools. This framework is a guide to the knowledge and skills expected of primary school teachers who teach children about food. Its goal was to raise the quality of food and nutrition teaching in schools by helping primary schools implement the requirements for food within the new national curriculum. In combination with other action points from the School Food Plan, these curriculum measures seek to promote a 'pro-food' ethos in schools and heighten awareness of the integral part that food and a whole school approach plays in children's health, wellbeing and attainment.
As part of Food – a fact of life, the BNF published the characteristics of good practice in teaching food and nutrition education in primary schools (BNF, 2020). The publication sets out a series of characteristics of good practice with regard to teaching food in UK primary schools through a whole school perspective. They have been designed so that they can be adopted as part of a good practice approach by all those that teach food in primary schools. These characteristics include taking a whole school approach, running practical food lessons, establishing good food hygiene and safety practices, and exploring where food comes from. The guide demonstrates how different people within the primary school set-up can work together to ensure each characteristic is adopted.
Have these measures been successful?
A survey conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation in 2017 revealed that 13% of 8–11 year-olds think pasta came from an animal, whilst 23% of pupils aged 5–7 indicated that bananas, roast chicken, broccoli and whole-grain bread were in the dairy and alternatives food group (Ballam, 2017). Surveys such as this one reveal that a deficit in the basic understanding of food and nutrition in young people still exists.
A review of the implementation and effectiveness of the national cooking and nutrition curriculum was conducted by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation (JOFF) in 2017. This report on the Food Education Learning Landscape (FELL), reported that the launch of the curriculum led to an increase in pupils participating in learning which enabled them to develop knowledge and skills related to food origins, food preparation, and healthy heating. However, this was not true for all schools, and variability in these increases in nutrition was observed between schools. For example, in more than half of primary schools, pupils receive less than 10 hours of food and nutrition teaching a year, but one in ten schools get more than 30 hours (JOFF, 2017). More importantly, these marginal increases in knowledge and skills were insufficient to result in significant cultural and behavioural changes. Reasons for this included a number of key elements missing, related to physical and socio-cultural opportunities to engage, as well as pupil motivation.
Pupils in many primary schools reported a lack of positive messaging about healthy eating and food choices across their wider school environments. The common practice of offering foods high in fat and sugar as part of rewards, celebrations and fundraising in primary schools contradicts pupils’ food education. Thus, the wider school environment lacks consistency with the pupils teaching. Additionally, many teachers are unable to fully deliver on the curriculum’s requirements due to being under supported and under-resourced, reporting that they do not have the time, budget and facilities to do so.
Additional research amongst primary school teachers reveals a lack of professional training in food and nutrition, with food safety comprising the bulk of this training. During the initial teacher training year, a trainee may only receive around three hours of D&T study, with ‘food’ being just one part of this (Ballam, 2017). Additionally, the number of food teachers is declining. In 2016 the number of food teachers across key stages one, two and three had dropped from 5,300 to 4,500 during the previous five years. This is compared to 34,100 English teachers in 2016 (DfE, 2016).
Another barrier to effective nutrition education is a lack of rigorous evaluation, unlike the more “core” components of the curriculum like English and maths. This undermines the effectiveness and importance of nutrition education, and perpetuates its low status as a subject.
“Although significant progress has been made, there is still a long way to go and in many schools nationwide, the picture of food education gives cause for concern.” - JOFF
Pathways forward for nutrition education
To bring about the necessary cultural and behavioural changes in primary schools, improvements in nutrition education cannot simply involve changes to the curriculum or the provision of additional resources. Changes must be made to the level of priority it is given within the curriculum, the standards teachers and schools must deliver to, and the evaluation of this teaching.
Simultaneously, nutrition education must extend beyond the confines of its lessons. Nutrition can and should be integrated into, as well as act as a medium for the education of other subjects, such as art, math, science and geography. Beyond lessons, nutrition education can be integrated into other areas of the school experience, such as during school meals and snacks, which may involve cooking demonstrations, food tastings, activities and challenges.
Additionally, the initiatives improving the provision of healthy school meals in the UK offer a perfect platform to further implement nutrition education. For example, free breakfast clubs offer a platform for further discussion and engagement with food and nutrition education. Other opportunities existing beyond the classroom include the use of school gardens, which can offer engaging, valuable, practical experience. School libraries may dedicate sections or weeks to promote stories and books on food, nutrition and health. School assemblies are an opportunity to invite guests in, show films/documentaries, and set school challenges.
Finally, field trips to farms and museums can create enriching experiences for pupils. It is also important to consider how the improvement of programmes such as free school meals may help tackle the socioeconomic barriers facing children experiencing higher levels of food insecurity and schools located in areas of high deprivation. Programmes such as these not only increase access to healthy food, but when used as an opportunity to support learning related to food and health, can contribute to improving nutrition education.
As discussed, such changes will only be effective when used in combination with school-wide engagement, and consistency in messaging and opportunities. Primary school nutrition education must extend to parents, support workers, teachers, and the wider school environment. There must be a wider system of positive influence that fosters adoption of healthy behaviours and the propagation of a healthy food culture. A systematic review of teacher-delivered nutrition education programmes in the USA found that effectiveness of primary school-based nutritional education programs depends upon these wider factors including support from school leadership and policy makers, changes in the food school environment, and strategies embedded to engage parents and families (Cotton et al., 2020).
Similar issues are highlighted in the recommendations from that emerged from the JOFF research into primary school nutrition education.
Firstly, the knowledge and skill development of the whole school workforce must be supported in order to deliver high-quality food education and maintain positive consistent messages for pupils. Additionally, it is important that schools become ‘healthy zones’ where pupil health and wellbeing is consistently and actively promoted through the policies and actions of the whole school community. Finally, the reporting and evaluation of food education, school food culture and school food provision should be mandatory. Action steps to facilitate these changes were also included in this report. The Government should make School Food Standards mandatory in all schools and cover all food consumed when at school, whilst the Department for Education and the National Governors Association should jointly re-issue guidance for governors on their responsibilities for school food, and consider placing a ‘health and wellbeing’ statutory duty of care onto governors.
The most recent significant publication to discuss issues relating to primary school nutrition education was the National Food Strategy (NFS). It once again highlighted the persisting lack of prioritisation of nutrition education in primary schools (NFS, 2021). Solutions and action steps reflected those of JOFF, and gave strong mention to the importance of deeper inspection and review of cookery and nutrition lessons. The government has committed to publishing its response to the NFS within six months.
Nutrition education represents a key step in improving the diets and health of primary school pupils. Improvement efforts have ramped up over the last decade, and marginal gains in pupils knowledge of nutrition and health have been observed. However, these efforts have been unable to elicit change on the scale needed, and further policy and legislative developments are required. Only with long-term investment into nutrition education within and outside the classroom, may we see the necessary changes in food culture and behaviour in primary school pupils.
Key references & further reading
AfN (Association for Nutrition). 2021. UK Undergraduate Curriculum In Nutrition for Medical Doctors. Available from: https://www.associationfornutrition.org/careers-nutrition/wider-workforce/nutrition-training-for-medical-doctors [Accessed 26th November 2021]
Ballam R. 2017a. Food for thought: why our teachers need to be taught about nutrition. Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/roy-ballam/food-for-thought-why-our-_b_17549188.html. [Acceessed 25th November 2021]
Ballam R. Food education – let’s go back to the future. Nutrition Bulletin. 2021;46(4):412-414. doi: 10.1111/nbu.12524
BNF (British Nutrition Foundation). 2020. Food – a Fact of Life: Characteristics of good practice in teaching food and nutrition education in primary schools. Available from: https://www.foodafactoflife.org.uk/professional-development/ppd-toolkit/primary/characteristics-of-good-practice-in-teaching-food-and-nutrition-education-in-primary-schools/ [Accessed 26th November 2021]
Cotton W, Dudley D, Peralta L, Werkhoven T. The effect of teacher-delivered nutrition education programs on elementary-aged students: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Prev Med Rep. 2020;20:101178. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2020.101178
DfE (Department for Education). 2016. Statistics: school workforce. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-school-workforce. [Accessed 29th November 2021]
Dimbleby H, Vincent J. 2013. The School Food Plan. Available from: http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/School_Food_Plan_2013.pdf [Accessed 28th November 2021]
JOFF (Jamie Oliver Food Foundation). 2017. A Report on the Food Education Learning Landscape. Available from: https://www.akofoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2_0_fell-report-final.pdf [Accessed 24th November 2021]
NFS (National Food Strategy). 2021. The Plan. Available from: https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/ [Accessed 29th November 2021].
NNEdPro. Child Malnutrition & COVID-19 in the UK. Available from: https://www.nnedpro.org.uk/post/child-malnutrition-covid-19-in-the-uk [Accessed 11th December 2021]