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Asian Voice Column - 17 September 2010

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By Navin Shah AM

The Right 'Choice' of meals for pupils

The issue itself about halal meat served in schools and the lack of choice (in some schools) of other non vegetarian meals is an important one and deserves consideration by schools and local authorities. I entirely agree that there is full choice of meals available so that NO community feels discriminated.  But, I strongly condemn unhelpful, strong, insensitive and even disgusting headlines and propaganda seen in the media. Request for information (under ‘Freedom of Information Act 2000) has been received by Brent and Harrow Councils seeking information about ‘how many schools ……. . serve Halal prepared meat. This would be the cases of institutions where all meat is Halal (meaning children eating meat do not have a choice)”. 

I’ve been actively lobbied on this issue by a range of people / organisations including leaders of the Sikh and Hindu religions with their complaints. Consideration of the issue deserves objective and honest approach – firstly to assess the facts and then see how the situation could be remedied provided that the choice of meals offered to pupils is inappropriate. I’m happy to share my initial findings based on my meetings with the senior politicians and officers in the two Local Authority areas, namely Brent and Harrow, I represent on the London Assembly.

As a starting point the fact I’d like everyone to recognise is that the schools, regardless of which borough they are in, are autonomous institutions and it is the governing bodies of schools who decide catering policies and award contracts for school meals. The Council’s role at the best is to advice and guide schools but the Councils cannot impose or dictate school meal policies on Schools. Schools have their own budgets and final decision on this issue rests with schools.

Brent:  I can confirm that Brent Council itself has not been involved in catering contracts for school meals in Brent Schools. The current situation being that it is up to the individual school to determine the range of meals it serves to its pupils. However, Brent Council is totally committed to promoting a full choice of meals in schools to its diverse school community and to this end the I would ask Brent Council to consider issuing a clear and firm advice to all its schools that meals served in schools are healthy, nutritional and give a full choice to cater for religious needs and practices.

Harrow: The funding for school meals in Harrow is delegated to schools and they are free to set their policies for school meals and choose their own provider for meals. This is neither a new policy nor one that Harrow Council can make let alone impose. The contract in Harrow’s high schools, in place for two years, and the decision to provide halal meat was based on a wide range of advice and in the interests of serving the diversity of dietary requirements within the Borough. Harrow Council’s only direct involvement in school meals has been linked to the development of the hub kitchens and the development of the serveries in primary schools. Recently issues have been raised in relation to the provision of hot meals to primary schools and Council has been consulting with primary schools to ascertain if they wish to provide hot schools meals and if so, whether they want these provided from one of Council’s hub kitchens. This consultation has raised a number of issues and further discussions are planned in the Autumn to see how Council should proceed. I urge Harrow Council to take into account the current concerns and put in place choice of meals available to the pupils from Sikh and all other communities of diverse religious beliefs.    

I will be undertaking further examination of school meal provision in both Brent and Harrow Councils. In the meantime I urge all sections of our diverse communities to ensure that any criticism they have on this issue is balanced and take into account very clear roles and responsibilities the Councils and Schools have with regard to school meals.

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17th September 2010