Argyll & Bute Council v Never Seconds
Never Seconds is a website set up by 9-year-old Martha Payne from Lochgilphead Primary School. Like all pupils who eat school meals, she found that some days the food was excellent and on others it was not. To show her parents what the meals were like, she started to take a picture each day of her school meal and mark them on healthiness, size and quality.
The website took off in popularity, much to young Martha’s surprise, and she kept on going. She was attracting the same focus on school meals in Scotland as Jamie Oliver, for example, had done in England.
As well as doing this as a project, Martha saw it as a way of raising funds for Mary’s Meals. This charity sets up school feeding projects in schools in some of the world’s poorest communities, and is, not surprisingly, a charity to which many schools here contribute. Martha set up a “Just Giving” page so that her readers could donate to the charity, and you can find it here.
Martha was asked along to Nick Nairn’s cookery school, as she reported on her blog on Wednesday, to contribute to discussions on making school meals better.
By yesterday, he blog had had over 2 million hits in around 7 weeks, was generating feedback and photos of school dinners from all round the world, and had raised nearly £2,000 for Mary’s Meals. What a good story!
Then yesterday it all went horribly off the rails. As Martha reported, “This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.”
Her father confirmed that the school, who had been nothing but supportive, had been told by Argyll and Bute Council that Martha was now barred from taking pictures.
In the past the story might have made a local paper. It might even have made the “and finally” slot on Reporting Scotland. However, Twitter and Facebook took over. People started to tweet the story left, right and centre. As well as prominent Tweeters like Neil Gaiman, Louise Mensch MP and Professor Tim Luckhurst, thousands more passed the story on, to almost universal condemnation. Some folk counselled that the mob with their “twitchforks” should hold off until we heard the response of Argyll and Bute, and there was some speculation that this might be a result of the perennially vexed topic of photography in schools. Possibly a piece of lasagne had not give its consent to be snapped? Cries of censorship and totalitarianism seemed a trifle overblown, weren’t they?
Then the Council this morning replied, with all guns blazing. The response is now down from the Council website, but I have copied it in full below. Have a read and I will meet you again at the bottom of it.
The Council’s Statement
Statement on school meals from Argyll and Bute Council
15 Jun 2012 – 10:53
Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs. The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils however this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing. In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.
There have been discussions between senior council staff and Martha’s father however, despite an acknowledgement that the media coverage has produced these unwarranted attacks, he intimated that he would continue with the blog.
The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family received on 6 June and there have been no changes to the service on offer since the introduction of the blog.
Pupils have a daily choice of two meals from a menu which is designed with pupils, parents and teachers. Our summer menu is about to be launched and includes main course choices like meat or vegetarian lasagne served with carrots and garlic bread or chicken pie with puff pastry, mashed potato and mixed vegetables.
Pupils can choose from at least two meals every day. They pay £2 for two courses and this could be a starter and a main or a main and a desert. Each meal comes with milk or water. Pupils can have as much salad and bread as they want. Salad, vegetables, fruit, yoghurt and cheese options are available every day. These are standing options and are not a result of any changes in response to the blog site.
As part of the curriculum for excellence, pupils in all our schools are regularly taught about healthy eating and at lunch breaks staff encourage pupils to make good choices from what is on offer. We use a system called ‘Nutmeg’ to make sure everything is nutritionally balanced. Our staff also get nutrition awareness training so they know how to provide a good healthy meal. There is portion sized guidance which we adhere to and it is matched to the age of the child so they get the right amount of food. Second portions would mean too many calories for pupils.
In Lochgilphead Primary School we are piloting a new pre-ordering scheme which is designed to encourage class discussion around meal choices and also improves the accuracy of meal choices. The pupils use a touch screen to select their lunch option and the data is downloaded in the kitchen so they know how many portions of each meal are required. As they place their order, the pupils are given a coloured band which relates to their meal choice that day. They wear it during the morning, and at lunchtime they hand it to the catering assistant, who will give them the corresponding meal.
The council’s focus is now on supporting the school in the education of young people in Argyll and Bute.
Wow. What a response! The unnamed author was not going to let this lie. After all, how can a council do its business properly when nine year olds are writing constructive blogs and raising money for charity at the same time!
For one thing, it looks as if the person responsible for the statement has not read the blog. Sometimes Martha has been full of praise for her meal. She has shown, graphically, the wide variations that there can be, even in the same school, and with the same catering staff. Martha had not been calling for the kitchen staff to be sacked, but instead a newspaper had asked some pointed questions about school meal standards.
If “the Council” felt that the blog misrepresented it, then why had it not spoken to Martha’s parents and put their view across. The reference to not directly criticising the people involved “for obvious reasons” seemed mealy mouthed at best, and clearly was no longer their position.
They stated that the photos only represented a fraction of what was on offer. However Martha was only eating one meal per day. She could only “judge” one meal per day.
The anonymous spokesman then had a go at Martha’s father on the basis that, despite the press coverage, the blog would continue. Perhaps they missed the fact that the negative coverage came from the press, and not from the blog?
In addition, Martha herself had praised the band system as being a good way of ensuring that supplies of a popular lunch did not run out before all were fed.
Obviously someone in Argyll and Bute Council thought that would end the matter. Oh dear. Thankfully however sense prevailed when the elected members took over from the officials in dealing with the matter.
The Council’s Second Statement
The Council leader, Roddy McCuish, issued a new statement this afternoon.
Updated: 14:19 – 15 June 2012
“There is no place for censorship in this Council and never will be whilst I am leader. I have advised senior officers that this Administration intends to clarify the Council’s policy position in regard to taking photos in schools. I have therefore requested senior officials to consider immediately withdrawing the ban on pictures from the school dining hall until a report can be considered by Elected Members. This will allow the continuation of the “Neverseconds” blog written by an enterprising and imaginative pupil, Martha Payne which has also raised lots of money for charity.
But we all must also accept that there is absolutely no place for the type of inaccurate and abusive attack on our catering and dining hall staff, such as we saw in one newspaper yesterday which considerably inflamed the situation. That, of course, was not the fault of the blog, but of the paper.
We need to find a united way forward so I am going to bring together our catering staff, the pupils, councillors and council officials – to ensure that the council continues to provide healthy, nutrious and attractive school meals. That “School Meals Summit” will take place later this summer.
I will also meet Martha and her father as soon as I can, along with our lead councillor on Education, Michael Breslin to seek her continued engagement, along with lots of other pupils, in helping the council to get this issue right. By so doing Martha Payne and her friends will have had a strong and lasting influence not just on school meals, but on the whole of Argyll & Bute.”
This statement supersedes all other council statements on the matter already issued.
That is a perfect response, and will, I think, get back for the Council the respect that its over-hasty and heavy-handed officials had lost.
The Council want to take advantage of Martha’s ingenuity and perspective to look at how to better its service. Councillor McCuish deserves to be commended for his quick reaction, and for being prepared to over-rule his officials. One councillor I know (not in Argyll and Bute) talked about what you had to do to beat the enemy. I thought he meant the Opposition – he told me that they were only the Opposition, but the real enemy were the officials!
And, as well as the Council being seen to be sensible and quickly and positively reactive, Martha’s website has gone through the roof. There have now been over 3.1 million hits, so over 1 million in just over a day. The sum raised for Mary’s Meals has gone from just under £2,000 to over £31,000!
So what have we learned?
All is well that ends well (apart from the poor soul in the Council who issued the declaration of war statement presumably).
The website has had huge interest, on Twitter and on the mainstream media. Martha and her father are to be involved officially in improving the Council’s school meals. Her enterprise and initiative have been recognised, and rightly so.
The Twitter storm succeeded where, in times past, the campaign would never have arisen, or so slowly that the effect would have been minimal. Here the Twitter response was justified, especially when the first Council response is considered. The one caveat of course is that, the reaction came in the absence of full information. It would be equally possible for the Social media storm to be misdirected, because of incorrect or incomplete information.
But today these is every reason for positivity.
Well done Councillor McCuish!
Well done Argyll & Bute Council!
Well done Mr Payne!
And most of all, well done Martha!
Posted by Paul McConville