Stories from my 1970s food lessons in an east London school
A gang of grumbly boys bursts into my room.
‘I ain’t doing this lesson! I chose Art! This lesson’s for girls!’
‘I’m only here ‘cos Mr Smith won’t have us in metalwork!’
‘Your names please boys?’ There’s fierce eye contact.
‘Gavin!’ A burly young giant towers over me.
‘Ray!’ A shorter but no less submissive boy scowls back.
‘Len! Not doing exams! Leaving at Easter! Got a job in my uncle’s garage.’ So Len’s not to be messed with either.
‘OK boys – I’ll see if you can change back. We don’t want you doing lessons that you don’t like.
This school was a secondary modern before it was renamed a Senior High but the ghost of low expectation lingers on. Most students are entered for some sort of exam unless they choose to leave at the end of the Easter term after they turn sixteen. These early leavers dither aimlessly about the corridors, desperate to sidle out of the school gates and bunk off. And quite a few seem to be listed on my registers.
Mr Roberts, the deputy head says he’ll pop into the staffroom and ask if the other teachers will take the boys back. He returns swiftly to tell me no, their classes are full and anyway they only teach serious students. It seems my grumbly gang can’t do subjects like art, woodwork, technical drawing and metalwork. But they can do Cookery! It’s easy! Just spend lessons making jam tarts, bread, pastry and cakes. The new teacher will take you. She doesn’t know the kicking-out rules practised by other staff.
Next week the gang has joined the queue propping up the wall outside my room.
‘All of you, come in and gather round my demonstration table with your stools. As it’s our first cooking lesson we’re using storeroom ingredients. You can pay later. There’s margarine, caster sugar, eggs and self raising flour.’
‘What are we making Miss?’
‘We’re making fairy cakes today, Alice. It’s a simple recipe – same weight of egg and other ingredients. Beat the marg with the sugar until it’s creamy, like this.’
I bang my wooden spoon on the edge of the mixing bowl and the soft, shiny mixture plops down. Gavin should be good at this.
‘Crack your egg into a cup, beat it with a fork, stir in, sieve the flour and fold in gently. Then into tart tins.
Gavin booms from his stool.
‘When are we doing tarts, Miss?’
He smirks to the group.
‘I’ve never done tarts!’
I so hope he won’t come to my pastry lessons and learn about knocking up.
‘Aprons on, hair tied back, hands washed – let’s get cooking.’
The room busies with weighing and beating then it’s into the cake cases for baking.
“Wash up while the cakes cook.’
The room fills with sponge-baking fragrance. Even Gavin is calming under the spell of watching his raw cake dough rise and turn golden brown.
‘Onto cooling racks and ready for marking!’
‘Len. Two marks off. You’ve made 7 instead of 6. And they are different sizes.’
Len scowls. Stupid rules of fairy cake making!
Alice has six perfectly formed, well risen, golden cakes.
“Full marks Alice.’
‘Gavin – 6 out of 10.’ ‘What! Why?’
‘Sink full of washing up, Gavin– do it before you leave.’
They pile out the room, fairy cakes packed in paper bags. My boy gang is laughing through mouthfuls of sponge. Only a few bowls and spoons are left in the sinks for me to clear away.
Next week they have a choice of pineapple upside down cak\e or spotted dick. I hope Gavin stays away.
Housecraft and Home Economics exams and gender issues
The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 meant that boys and girls had equal access to all subjects in schools. However, studies later showed that despite the government requirement for equal opportunities when choosing practical subjects, boys were actively discouraged from taking the subject by their teachers, peers and parents. In 1981 only 7% of boys were entered for exams in domestic subjects.
In a report on ‘Gender roles and the curriculum boys and home economics’ published in 1983, Susan Johne criticised the strong female bias of the home economics textbooks, and questions set for the exams. Her report showed how boys changed their minds when they discovered that so many girls took the subject and that it was considered cissy to cook.
Teachers at the time were not allowed to set their own CSE home economics practical tests despite the multicultural mix in many cities. In 1979 I was chief examiner for London Board Food exams and able to reflect the diversity of the city and respect that boys and girls could cook.
Here are some exam questions from the time that reinforce the role of the woman as cook, caterer and cleaner for her husband and family. Remember these questions were given to boys and girls for their practical and theory exam and I had to persuade them that it was old fashioned, but things would change!
Questions from the practical exam
1. Your brother and a friend are playing football. Prepare, cook and serve a substantial meal for them on their return home. You are all going out for the evening. Iron the shirt your brother will wear and sponge and press either the skirt or trousers that you will wear.
2. Your father and brother are going fishing for the day. Launder your father’s sweater. Leave to dry and press it if it dries in time. Make some meat pasties or pies and pack up with salad and fruit and a flask of coffee for their picnic meal. Cook and serve a substantial two course dinner ready for their return.
These are questions from the theory exam
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of using fresh foods and pre-prepared foods. Plan two balanced meals to show how a busy housewife can use both types of food to advantage.
2. Suggest two dinners for a housewife who does her own cooking and shopping. a) a dinner cooked quickly on her return from shopping, b) a dinner which can mainly be left coking while she is out.
In 2019 GCSE entries for Food Preparation and Nutrition, Home Economics and Hospitality and Catering were
18506 Male 35063 Female = 34% Male 66% Female so it’s changed a bit!