Cookery Exam Results 1973

It’s mid August. The height of summer 1973. Hot. Very hot and it’s the day that exam results are released. My Mini Traveller reluctantly leaves the sparkling seas of sunny Sussex and heads north to my east London school which is open just for this one day to hand out exam results to students and staff that choose to attend.

This is a day of reckoning for me. One year at the school. One year of teaching my exam students. One year to get my raggle taggle groups able to cook an edible two course meal, with a cake or batch of biscuits, iron a shirt, clean a pair of football boots and lay out the table, with d’oyleys, cruet set, flower arrangement and serving dishes. One year to drill in stuff for the theory exam, with some of them struggling to read and write. I’ve learnt that at the start of the new term each department’s results will be pinned on the staffroom noticeboard and I’m a department of ONE. One year when I might get named, shamed and singled out for improvement. Evidence of my success or failure in the first year of teaching at this school will be pinned up for all to see.

Today very few staff have turned up. Their six summer week break is sacrosanct. Time to get away. End of term chatter in the staffroom boasted of long family trips to France on camping forays or staying in gites in the Dordogne. No doubt they’ll come back glorifying du pain, du vin and du some delicious French cheese and saucisson. A group of young teachers is taking a trip to America, driving down the west coast searching for the Beach Boys’ lifestyle and told me they’re visiting seafood shacks by the ocean to sample lobsters, crab and fries. Older teachers say they’re just as happy sitting in their Cromer caravan overlooking the icy cold North Sea and watching the wind whip up the waves. A picnic on the beach with brown bread Cromer crab sandwiches and a glass of warm Adnams Southwold beer is perfect. They deserve their holiday and will be back fresh at the start of the new term.

Kind Mr Lewes, who supported me with my class discipline in that first year, sits in the entrance hall at an enormous trestle table filled with rows of brown envelopes, lined up in alphabetical order.  Eager students file past. ‘Surname and exam number?’ They hurry away, tearing open the envelope and pulling out the typed sheet that decides their future. Followed by jumping squeals of delight or subdued shrugs of disappointment. No one from my classes seems to have turned up.

Mr Lewes hands me a large envelope containing two printed lists. One with my CSE results and the other O level and I scurry away to my cookery room to discover my fate.

The CSE result sheet is first and I scan down the familiar names. Out of sixty candidates, fifteen have a Grade 1. That’s amazing. If they’d been allowed to join my O level group they would have a proper O level certificate and grade. How they could have shone. The low expectation from the old secondary modern thinking makes me sad. Many boys have scored grades 4 and 5 and two have got a U which means total failure. My O level results are spectacularly poor and no doubt the headmaster will call me in for an explanation at the start of term.

There’s a timid knock at my door and Alice walks in. The quiet girl who wasn’t allowed to change classes to move away from the boisterous boys and work with the gentle, hardworking O level group. She’s no longer dressed in her prim school uniform and looks surprisingly pretty in her flowery summer dress and bouncy blond hair. Alice may well smile. She’s achieved her goal – a Grade 1 CSE, equivalent to an O level.

‘Well done Alice. This means you can do A level Home Economics with me in the sixth form.’

‘Thanks Miss. I got some really good results. See you in September.’

There’s another bang on the door and in comes a joyous Bert.

‘Miss, I passed. It was the only exam I took and I got it.’ Bert, in his out of school clothes, looks distinctly grown up. ‘Yes Bert – you got a Grade 5.’ It’s the lowest grade before total failure, but we’re both pleased. Bert, whose practical exam was a disaster. His Cornish pasty shortcrust pastry was such a sticky mess that he scooped it into a bowl, mixed in the minced beef, onions and potatoes, patted it flat and baked it. A sort of Cornish Pasty pizza. And his Swiss Roll didn’t roll but he still served the spongy lump with some jam and a jug of custard. If only he’d chosen his favourite shepherd’s pie and apple crumble we would have been in business.

“See you at prize giving day, Miss.’ Bert leaves my room waving his result’s paper in triumph.

Did famous Food writers learn to cook at school?

Grace Dent in her best selling memoir Hungry says home economics was the one lesson where she could shine. Nigel Slater was the only boy in his domestic science class but it took a long time for Miss Adams to teach him to cook.

So do other famous food writers value their cooking lessons at school? The Guild has nearly 500 members who are authors, broadcasters, columnists and journalists and they are passionate and knowledgeable about food. I asked if they learnt to cook at school and if not why not.

65% of respondents said yes and 35% said no. 

Many were not allowed to but why? The message was clear. Cooking was not considered an academic subject and clever students, like some Guild members, had to study Latin or science instead. They were actively discouraged from learning to cook. In high schools and grammar schools only the less academic were allowed to learn home economics. Several begged to take the subject but had to wait until they left school to study for themselves. A level Domestic Science was not accepted as a qualification for university and others, like me, had to take more exams to make up for this. Clearly, for Guild members, learning about food is their passion and they have a hugely diverse range of job opportunities open to them.

Here are replies from members who loved their lessons. 

Liz Trigg says ‘I absolutely loved it and had a great inspiring teacher Mrs Susan Hopps. I then went on to study a Bsc in Home Economics at Cardiff University’. 
Liz has a successful food media career as a food editor in magazines and writing cookbooks.

Lorna Rhodes replied ‘I loved domestic science at school and did the new course at Salford Tech for Home economics for higher education – led onto a job with Cadbury’s and then freelancing writing and food styling.’
Lorna’s website says ‘Food has been the story of my life!!  I have had a successful career as a cookery writer and food stylist for over 30 years having trained as a home economist.’

Charlotte Pike is Chair of the Guild of Food writers and is an award winning cookery writer, teacher and chef.
‘I did GCSE Food Technology in 2001. I was told off for taking my Mum’s copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course in by my teacher! Food Technology was dull.’

Lynsey Ainley/ Hollywood is the manager of the Food & Drink Business Development Centre and Course Director for the MSc Food Design and Innovation at Ulster University Business School.
‘I look back on my HE classes with really fond memories and am genuinely so appreciative of the topics I was taught relating to sustainability, health, budgeting and nutrition as well as the skills I gained in cooking and research.’

Jennifer John runs Ceres PR, a specialist food and wellbeing PR and marketing agency
‘I did O level & A level HE then the National Diploma was a brilliant education all round – in so many subjects!’

Jane Milton writes about the food industry and often appears as an expert on television programmes representing the industry.
‘I did O’ grade and Higher Home Ec. In my higher studies chemistry and Home Ec were time tabled against each other as ‘if you are clever enough to do chemistry, you would not do Home Ec.’ The School year book says – Course of Higher Education as they could not bring themselves to say I had gone on to do a degree in HE! ‘

Sam Bilton is an established Food Historian, writer and cook. 
‘I did Home Economics as an O level in the 80s. I had a very enthusiastic home economics teacher so I enjoyed it. No one suggested I do Home Economics as an A level. I wish they had as I’m sure I’d have got better results!’  

Clare Gordon Smith is a food writer, stylist and editor. 
‘I did Home Economics at school, but had to change school to get there as the previous school didn’t think it much of a subject!’

What are the views of food writers who did not study cookery at school?

Angela Clutton writes award winning cookery books and runs food events for Borough Market and the British Library and regularly appears on TV.
‘At my school you did either Latin or Home Ec – and this was a decision made by the teachers, not the pupils. The ‘clever’ girls did Latin… Ridiculous and makes me sad even to write it here.’ 

Liz Wright, editor of the Smallholder Magazine, replied
‘I’d like to have done more but I was academic so they wouldn’t let me – didn’t do me a lot of good, left school at 15 because I hated it.’

Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’ Kay has been a book editor for many years and runs a travel gourmet blog.

Not all are glowing about their cookery teachers. Some replies made me chuckle.

Steff Hafferty is a no dig gardener, garden and food writer, teacher, consultant. ‘It was dreadful, taught by a psycho maths teacher and a psycho nun. I learned nothing about making good food’

Sally Butcher says she’s a crazy cornershop keeper. Restaurateur. Masquerades as a chef.
‘My home economics teachers were appalling. I couldn’t wait to drop both classes.Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’

My conclusions?

Since I started teaching in the 1970s, home economics, domestic science, cookery or whatever else you want to call it, has been challenged. The Guild members describe the enjoyment many found in cooking at school, yet others were stopped from taking the subject and told they were too academic and had to do other things. Learning about food deserves more respect. Well done to those Guild members who found a way in later life to get qualified and earn their living working with food.

In 2021 there is a shortage of people needed in the hospitality and catering industry, our weekend papers are packed with food news and recipes, and the public demands good quality food in supermarkets and restaurants. But our food teachers still struggle with lack of technician support for their busy classrooms and need help funding ingredients so that all students in their classes can cook. Somehow we need to wave the Food flag and hope that schools of the future give students a chance to learn about this amazing subject that has been such an important part of my life for the last fifty years!

You can read my story teaching cooking in 1970s east London in I taught them to cook.

Guild of Food Writers Awards

My blog I taught them to cook is one of the 3 finalists in The Guild Awards Online Food Awards 2021 so I’m very pleased as it’s the first year in my 20 years of membership that I’ve entered for anything.

Food textbooks are the secret world of food writing. Each one takes a year to write and must match curriculum requirements and be up to date and accurate. Then we need to source all the charts, photos and drawings. The good news is that publishers sell loads.
So Thankyou Guild for seeing the value of school food education. After 50 years I am a piece of its history! And thankyou Satellite PR for sponsoring this award. Hope you don’t mind my tatty old site!