When I left school I did a Youth Training Scheme in Agriculture on a pig farm at Writtle Agricultural College, driving combine harvesters, ploughing and delivering piglets! I then worked on farms with rare breed cows and at a sugar-beet research station.
After eight years, I fancied a career change so I trained as a chef and ran my own catering business for five years, and also worked as a chef in a nursing home. Then I decided I’d like to work in a school. I saw an advert in a local paper, at the school I’d originally gone to. I got the job and have not looked back. I’ve now worked in two secondary schools and a primary school.
As catering manager at a primary school, I’m in charge of cooking the meals, ordering stock and training the three catering assistants. We feed 180 children a day. Lunch uptake also increases when the weather gets colder. Since the introduction of universal free school meals, we’ve had an increase of 60 children. It’s very tiring, but we’ve been given extra hours to cope with the increased demand.
Universal free meals is a fantastic thing, with all the children eating together. Next year I’m planning a ‘crazy dinner day’ with the aim of feeding 100% of the kids. I also plan ‘theme days’ at various times of year, such as a ‘Guy Fawkes’ dinner – which are really popular. We regularly offer tasting sessions where children can try new flavours. We recently did a curry tasting session. The next day I had an email from a parent requesting the recipe, saying her child had been converted! I am also running a competition for the children to design a mural for the wall, which they can then all paint together. This will help give the children a sense of ownership of the space.
We are part of the Essex School Meals Support Group which provides a really in depth school procedures manual. I use this for the basis of my staff training. Using the manual demonstrates that we are following good practice. Through the school I have completed my Level 4 qualification in Food Safety.
What I love best about the job is knowing that we’re doing the children good. We don’t know their background, or what they eat at home, so if we’re providing a child with one good hot meal a day, we’ve done our job well. It’s very satisfying to see an empty plate. Recently a child said to me “I didn’t like my dinner today”. I felt really disappointed and asked her why. She replied, “Because I loved it”! That’s why I do my job – it’s wonderful, although the workload is challenging and it can be really hard work both mentally and physically.
When I worked in a secondary school, I had more flexibility in my role and was able to do some one-to-one work with a child with behavioural difficulties. This sparked a new interest in me and I decided to study A-Level Psychology. I’ve now started a Psychology degree with the aim of training as a welfare officer or parent-support adviser.
In the meantime, however, school catering is very rewarding, and the best job I’ve ever had.
Qualifications: Youth training scheme in agriculture; BTEC National Diploma in Hotel and Catering Management; Level 4 in Food Safety; NVQ assessor; GCSE in Maths and Psychology; A-Level in Psychology and Geography