Rachel Tomlinson is the headteacher at Barrowford School, which is part of the Whole Education Primary Network. The school has recently received national media attention for their vegetarian school dinner menu. WE spoke to Rachel about why they changed their school menu, the importance of sustainability in schools and why we should all be more hummingbird.
The full interview with Rachel Tomlinson can be read below.
Why did you make the changes to your school menu?
So our curriculum is based on four pillars. The first being the National Curriculum. The second being our Rounded and Grounded Framework, which is a skills and dispositions metacognitive skills framework. The third pillar, importantly for this, is our Sustainable Development Goals. The fourth is the Rise of the Child.
We use these pillars to create a platform on which we develop projects. We do project based learning. It’s all about trying to make sure that our children know about taking appropriate social action and know about how small things can make a really big difference.
A lot of that learning around the Sustainable Development Goals is centred around the climate emergency that we’re in and it is a climate emergency. Our children are thinking a lot of the time about actions each of us can take to mitigate against the climate emergency that we’re finding ourselves in. One of those things is to reduce meat consumption. That’s a fact.
About two years ago we reduced meat on our menu. We did things that a lot of schools are doing now like Meat Free Mondays and different things like Fish Fridays. We reduced the meat on a couple of days and didn’t serve meat for a couple of days. As we learnt more, our children became more socially conscious and socially aware and wanted to do more. It felt as if we had to fly the flag and put our money where our mouth was in a sense and really take the action that we could do as a school. We were taking action with lights, paper consumption. Trying to reduce all the things that contribute to the climate emergency.
Removing meat from our menu was actually really sensible because what it enables our parents to do is to carry on as normal at home. One of the things environmentalists are advocating is reducing meat for a day a week in family homes. So we thought, if we do it for our parents, we can change the habits. They don’t have to change the habits at home.
We took meat off the menu over twelve months ago. We publish our menu weekly. It goes on our newsletters so our children can look at it with their parents over the weekend and choose what they want to eat each day. It was really obvious to anyone that looked that there was no meat on the menu and there hasn’t been for a really long time.
We ask for feedback every month: a questionnaire. We ask “What are we doing right?”, “What are we doing wrong”, and invite our parents to ask questions. And one of the questions was, “Is there no meat on the menu? What’s that about?” So I sent out a brief explanation of why there was no meat on the menu. It was mainly around the environmental impact of low quality meat. It’s not hand reared organic beef coming into school kitchens. It’s intensely farmed low quality meat. That was the explanation. I’m not vegetarian. I don’t have strong vegetarian views. It’s literally about having a real impact on the environment and doing our bit. So we told our parents and our parents were like, “Yeah, alright” and the world went mad.
So one of the suggestions I made — it was a suggestion, not an instruction — was that those who bring packed lunches might want to join us and might want those packed lunches to be meat free.
Another side of this is we have quite a diverse community as well and something like 30% of our school population is Muslim. We’re in the Lancashire local authority. Lancashire doesn’t serve Halal meat. So what it meant was a lot of our children were saying that they were vegetarian or choosing the vegetarian option (of which there is only one historically). They weren’t. They were just Muslim. So not only did it feel like it was answering an environmental question, but it also felt far more inclusive and far healthier. Far more inclusive in that it gave all the children the same choice in effect.
So that’s why we did it.
Lancashire have been really supportive and have drawn up a really balanced menu and lot’s of children try food they’ve never tried before and actually really enjoy it. Our school meals have gone up in quality, our school numbers for school meals have gone up because the food is so good.
There’s actually some really hidden bit of legislation which is actually quite old about school meals. Somebody has pointed out to our local authority that there is a very, very hidden bit of legislation that says there needs to be three portions of meat on offer a week. So actually from Wednesday, we have put chicken back on the menu three times a week. There is at least fifteen choices a week and of those there is a choice of chicken, and only chicken, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
With some meat returning to the menu, do you expect some of the children going back to eating meat during school meals? Or has the response been so positive that you don’t think they will go back?
It feels like the children won’t. I tend to have a school lunch as often as I can. Yesterday, for example, was vegetable lasagne and vegetarian sausage roll and a chicken burger. And very few children chose the chicken burger. I think our children are becoming much more adventurous in what they want to try and I have found that they have really enjoyed the meat free options as they’re very, very tasty.
What seems great about this is you’re changing attitudes to food in young children. I remember growing up and never even considering a meat free option. With this, you’re showing the diversity of vegetarian meals you can have.
Absolutely, that’s the thing. I’m not advocating a vegetarian diet, because I can’t. I’m not a vegetarian. I do limit my meat intake for environmental reasons and also for health reasons. There’s so much that children can eat. We try to source the vegetables locally. Children are having soup. The range of food has widened our children’s experiences. Some of the menu is much more representative of our school community. That feels really positive too. Our children are developing quite adult tastes actually.
You mentioned at the start that your curriculum is based around the Sustainable Development Goals. I’d be interested to hear what other projects you are working on regarding sustainability and climate change.
Well loads of stuff. As I mentioned earlier, our project based learning is all based around those four pillars of the curriculum.
Our Year 1’s are exploring how they are going to feed Barrowford. Their project looks at growing, supporting food banks, food miles, all sorts of things. It’s getting really little kids to think about how we can be sustainable with our diet and why that is important.
Our Year 3 students are working on the question, “Why are the vultures dying and why should we care?” It’s awesome. They could tell you all kinds of things. Our Year 3’s could tell you how the vultures are important and when they die it means the whole ecosystem shifts. They’re taking on the plight of the vultures and looking on petitioning all types of people and organisations they really want to support and write to. It’s a really cool project and they’re really engaged in the whole thing. It’s really changed views too. People have quite negative perceptions of vultures. They’re associated with death and they’re a bit ugly and unpleasant to look at. I think it’s helped the children understand that just because something doesn’t fit our view of beauty, it doesn’t mean that something isn’t worthwhile. So there’s been a whole other conversation about that.
Year 4 are looking at rewilding They’ve done a lot of research on life cycles and planting research. They’re looking at rewilding some of our school grounds with some local community groups.
Year 5 is looking at extinction and why does extinction matter. They’re looking at different things we can do and actions we can do to prevent at risk species.
Year 6 has a great question. Their question is “Can good leaders do bad things?” and “Can bad leaders do good things” and at the moment that feels really relevant.
Those projects sound great. Despite there being a greater awareness of sustainability and climate change, it still can be a divisive topic. I’m aware your vegetarian school meals received some negative attention from the nation press. Has there been much pushback from pupils and parents?
No, the pupils and parents all really get it and really understand it and really support it. None of the pushback has come from our parents or pupils as they really understand where we are coming from. When we told them, they were like, “That all makes sense”. That’s what’s really frustrating. They really haven’t had a voice in it. All these people are up in arms about what we’ve done, but there’s not that opinion in our school community.
The feedback from our parents is that they’ve been quite frustrated with that. They’re frustrated that their voice hasn’t been heard. It’s been deafened out by the outcry by people who’ve heard misrepresented facts.
Some of the farming community have been quite upset about it, but when they have had the conversation with me, we’re absolutely on the same page. We want there to be ground that is able to be farmed. We both want sustainable farming – to have land we can grow harvest on. We’re much more closely aligned. We’re definitely not in opposition. Those conversations have been quite interesting actually.
We talk about the parable of the hummingbird. Someone at a Whole Education conference introduced me to this lovely parable. It’s about a forest fire, which doesn’t sound very lovely, but bare with me. The animals are fleeing from the forest from the fire and as they’re fleeing they’re seeing the hummingbird flying back and forth. They’re laughing at the hummingbird and ask, “What are you doing?”, and she says, “I’m going to the lake and getting a drop of water and dropping it on the fire”. The animals laugh at her and say, “Why are you doing that? It’s not going to make a difference”. She says “I’m doing what I can”. That’s kind of the way we communicate how we do things with our children. We do what we can and small actions accumulate and become really big things. We do what we can.
That’s a lovely story. I guess with all of this in mind, what’s next? What future sustainability work have you got coming up?
Three of our staff are working with the Eden Project on the Eden Changemakers Project. I think the final session is next week or the week after. They’re presenting their projects and the actions our children want to take.
There’s all kinds of things in the pipeline. We work really closely with Ashoka. One of the things our children are really enjoying doing is their global conferences of young people. It’s a great way to get young voices heard in the climate emergency. So our Year 5 and Year 6 children are regularly in Zoom conversations with children from 7 or 8 countries across the globe. It’s really great to see 10 year olds in Barrowford, a tiny little place in the North West of England, talking to people in Spain and India and Brazil. They’re sharing views on how we can be more hummingbird, how we can stop climate change, how we can make the climate emergency less of an emergency than it already is.
A lot of the stuff comes from our children. The push for change is directed by and informed by and led by our children.
To wrap things up, what is your favourite meal on your vegetarian school dinner menu?
That’s a really good question. I think the answer is our vegetable sausage rolls. They’re absolutely delicious, although that’s an unpopular view. The most popular view about our school meals is the cheese whirls. Our children call them “Cheese Worlds”. There’s a misconception that they’re called “Cheese Worlds”. So Cheese Whirls are generally considered to be the best, but I really like the vegetable sausage rolls. Our vegetable curries are also really delicious.