At the chalkface: Toxic

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

I tried to dismantle the fizzy drinks machine and got detention. I gave condescending, useless sermons on class, culture and diet. How could parents foist poison on their own children?

Many years ago I was walking down a main street in Stockholm. I saw a machine at the roadside.

“What’s that for?” I asked my Swedish companion. “It measures lead.” The reading was about two per cent. “Why don’t we have them in London?” “It would be very high. They don’t want you to know,” he said smugly. “It damages the brain, especially children’s brains.” Ah.

“It’s murder.” Ah.

Was this why so many pupils were barmy? Their inner city brains were poisoned? Why were teachers even bothering? It wasn’t our fault we couldn’t control raging nutters. No pedagogy cuts through lead.

Why was nothing done about it? This was criminal negligence. Why were the effects of lead unacknowledged?

Well, they are now, but little radical is still being done.

Junk food was another external factor which we couldn’t control. What if it dulled the mind and worse? Food was class, food was toxic. Posh people went to planet organic and to Russell Group universities. Poor people went to KFC and didn’t.

A brute generalisation maybe, but for years we could see its toxic effects on pupils. A breakfast of cola and crisps didn’t help learning. A school dinner of sugar, salt, additives, twizzlers, chips, ketchup and offal kept them wired, unreachable and unteachable. Too many had the twitching Chicken Stare.

I tried to dismantle the fizzy drinks machine and got detention. I gave condescending, useless sermons on class, culture and diet. How could parents foist poison on their own children? They knew it was hugely damaging – like not reading them stories at bedtime.

I despaired – if the lead hadn’t got to them, then the diet would.

But at last there are reasons to be cheerful about food. Many schools have had a bellyful of junk and are taking matters into their own hands. They are offering and even growing nourishing breakfasts and lunches. Jamie Oliver seemed to be fighting a losing battle, but other schools are winning.

Schools, for example, in Oldham, the poorest town in England. Anne Burns, the fierce head of school dinners in Oldham, won’t tolerate any children eating badly any more. Now potatoes are organic and fish is sustainably sourced. The children love it. Everything improves. Sheena Fineran, 30 years a dinner lady, agrees: “It’s an absolute joy to see them doing brilliantly in maths and English and socialising.”

Secondary schools are following. It’s looking good. Now all we need is those poisons off the road. This is so serious. There are no excuses. Sweden can do it.

Then we might be able to begin teaching them something.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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