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  • 27 Feb 2014

    Questionnaire results: Food allergies and cookery lessons in schools - what the parents say

    Posted: 27 Feb 2014

    Recently I sent out a mini questionnaire asking for your thoughts and experiences about how well your child's school copes with food allergies and cooking lessons. I had an overwhelming response, so a MASSIVE thank you to everyone who replied.

    I received responses from parents who have children in pre-, primary and secondary schools, so it gave me a good snapshot of how children's allergies are managed throughout their school careers.

    So what did the questionnaire reveal? (Caution: this is a non-scientific, non-statistical summary!)
    On the whole, parents with children in primary school are satisfied that teachers try hard to accommodate food allergies. However, most parents are obliged to get involved with cookery lessons, whether this is taking time off work to help, or sending in safe ingredients. There was a mixed response as to whether teachers really understand the implications of food allergies, with some worrying stories of children being fed allergens at school.

    In secondary school, the picture is not so rosy. Some children with allergies are excluded from food technology lessons on the basis that the school cannot guarantee their safety. And one parent reported that a child's auto-injectors were kept in a locked room, with the staff not understanding that this could be problematic/life threatening in the event of a reaction. On a brighter note, one parent reported that her child's secondary school had recently converted to being a 'nut free' zone during food technology lessons.

    What other parents are doing to keep their children safe at school
    Teaching the teacher
    - Not surprisingly, everyone stressed how important it is to have frequent communication with teachers about food allergies. Most parents have been involved to some degree in teaching the teachers about allergic reactions, and how to prevent them. Some have also resorted to helping with cookery lessons to ensure that their child is safe. 

    Providing the goods - The majority of parents provide substitute cooking ingredients for lessons so that their child can join in with cooking activities. This got me thinking; what if there were a printable sheet that clearly showed teachers how to substitute ingredients to make cooking lessons safe for everyone in the class? Hmm, leave that idea with me...

    Becoming teacher's pet - In primary school, many of the parents have good communication with teachers who tell them in advance about cookery lessons. This gives them time to prepare food, book a day off work to help, or bring in substitute ingredients. Tip: Make sure the teacher has your email address and phone number!

    And how about challenging the status quo? - Although most parents accept that their child will make a different (safe) version of the food being prepared by the rest of the class, others express frustration that teachers aren't aware of how easy it is to substitute ingredients. It seems clear that some basic education is needed, particularly as substitute products are readily available in supermarkets. Also, is it the parent's responsibility to provide specialist ingredients, or is that the school's job? What do you think? Perhaps you should be able to claim costs back from the school? We all know free from food doesn't come cheap!

    Conclusion
    The clear message is that even at primary level, teachers need more education about food allergies. Many parents aren't confident that the teacher truly understands the implications of food allergies, or what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. (This is backed up by a recent study led by Dr. Rebecca Knibb, Health Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at Aston University. Her findings can be found via this link on foodsmatter.com.) 

    In some cases a complete attitude overhaul is required; one parent was told that children would not be able to pass a GCSE in food technology if they couldn't use nuts. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

    My view is that children with food allergies or coeliac disease face a lifetime of cooking from scratch and altering recipes to keep themselves safe and healthy. And yet, particularly in secondary school, they seem to be the very children who are being excluded from food technology lessons, because schools can't guarantee their safety. Surely change is needed?

    So with all of that in mind, it's onwards and upwards with preparing the Allergy Adventures® online workshops for schools. (If you missed it - what really?! - click on the link to read my fantastic news about being awarded a Wellcome Trust grant.

    It would be great to hear your thoughts on the results of the questionnaire, either leave a comment below, or if it's annoying signing into Disqus, (sorry) find me on Facebook or Twitter.

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