Some grumbly boys visit me in a gang protest before the start of teaching.
‘I ain’t doing this lesson! I chose Art! This lesson’s for girls or poofters!’
‘And I ain’t bringing no cookery stuff!’
‘We’re only doing this ‘cos Mr Smith won’t have us in metalwork!’
‘Your names please boys?’
They eye me up, starting from my rather new platform shoes, up, up past my rather too short miniskirt and skim over my ribbed, striped, knitted top which suddenly seems rather too tight to wear in school.
‘Len, Miss.’ He’s quiet and reasonable.
‘I’m Bert!’ OK, could be trouble.
‘Tim.’ says a timid voice.
‘Ray.’ who gives a more confident answer.
‘OK boys – I’ll go and see if you can change back. We don’t want you coming to lessons if you don’t want to.’
This school is called a Senior High but it was a secondary modern before and it feels like the ghost of low expectation lingers on. Most students take some sort of exam unless they choose to leave in the Easter term after they turn fifteen, but I get no support from senior management when some students say they only want to cook, not do exams. These early leavers dither aimlessly about the corridors, desperate to sidle out of the school gates.
The deputy head says he’ll ask the other teachers if they can take the boys back in their classes. He returns later to tell me classes are full or only for serious students, not the less able. It seems they can’t do subjects like art, woodwork, technical drawing and metalwork. But they can do Cookery! Miss, the new teacher, doesn’t know the kicking-out rules practised by other staff. Cookery is easy – just spend the afternoon making jam tarts, bread, pastry and fairy cakes. The new teacher will take you.
This week the same gang is propping up the wall outside my classroom waiting for our first lesson.
‘OK class, come in and gather round my table with your stools.’
‘Not doing your exam! Only here til Easter!’ It’s Len.
‘Got a job in me uncle’s garage. No point in this.’ ‘Thanks Bert.’
They’re listed on my register as ‘non examination pupils’ so that’s great. Thanks!
‘Class – as it’s our first lesson we’re using ingredients from my storeroom so you can get cooking today. There’s margarine, caster sugar, eggs and self raising flour.’
I’ve rescued the old eggs which passed the sink in water test meaning they should be edible – if we cook them they should be safe.
‘You’re going to learn how to use the equipment and cookers and make something to take home.’
‘What are we making Miss?’ A quiet girl’s question.”
“Alice ‘Miss – I wanted to do O level Cookery but I’ve been put in this group.’ She could have added ‘of idiots.’
‘We’re making fairy cakes today, Alice.’
‘What! Cakes for blooming fairies! I said this lesson was for poofters!’
Bert explodes and my scowl has no effect.
‘It’s a simple recipe – same weight of egg, margarine, caster sugar and self raising flour. Beat the marg with the sugar until it’s creamy like this.’
I bang the wooden spoon on the edge of the mixing bowl and the soft, shiny mixture plops down. I can’t tell them how much I love eating creamy margarine and sugar! A secret vice.
The group on the stools has quietened and even Bert seems vaguely interested.
‘Crack your egg into a cup, beat it with a fork, stir it in then sieve the flour and fold in gently in a figure of eight into the mixture.
I long to squawk like Long John Silver’s parrot – ‘Pieces of eight, figures of eight.’
‘Spoon the mixture in the six cases in your tart tin and bake in the oven.’
Bert nudges his neighbour and smirks. ‘When are we doing tarts, Miss.’
He turns to the group for approval.
‘I’ve never done a tart!’
Oh lawd, and he’ll have to learn about knocking up pastry and making sticky buns.
‘Aprons on, hair tied back, hands washed – let’s get cooking.’
The room busies with weighing and beating and cries of ‘Miss’ is this done?’ then it’s into the cake cases for baking.
“Wash up while they cook.’
The ovens emit wafts of nurturing, sponge-baking fragrance. Even Bert is calming under the spell of watching the raw sponge dough rise in the heat of the oven and turn golden brown.
‘Onto cooling racks and ready for marking!’
‘You’ve made 7 instead of 6 Len. And they are different sizes. One mark off.’
Len looks alarmed. Sacre bleu! Broken rules of fairy cake making!
Alice has six perfectly formed, beautifully risen, soft, golden cakes.
“Ten marks Alice.’ Maybe she’ll stay in this group but I hope she asks to move to a quieter class with more girls, who take things seriously.
‘Bert – 6 out of 10.’ ‘Why?’ he demands’.
‘Sink full of washing up, Bert – must be done before you leave.’
Cakes packed into paper bags, they pile out the room wedging chunks of cake into their mouths. Only a few spoons are left in the washing up bowls for me to tidy.
And next week they have a choice of pineapple upside down cake or spotted dick.
The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 required schools to provide access to all subjects for both sexes. However, studies later showed that despite the government requirement for boys and girls to have equal opportunities when choosing their practical subjects, boys were actively discouraged from taking the subject by their teachers, peers and parents.
In a report on ‘Gender roles and the curriculum boys and home economics’ published in 1983, my friend Susan Johne showed how boys changed their mind when they discovered that so many girls took the subject and that it was considered cissy to cook.
In 1981 only 7% of boys were entered for exams in domestic subjects. Teachers at the time are not allowed to set their own CSE home economics practical tests.
In the 1980s I became Chief Examiner for the Food and Nutrition examination. I made sure that the questions were non sexist and that for their practical examination students were encouraged to cook recipes from the many cultures that were living in the UK.