School Dinners and Spygate

Why have Argyll and Bute Council been so foolishly high-handed with such a brilliant blog as Never Seconds? Explanation could lie in Spygate, which if you don’t live in the Argyll area, you probably don’t remember or never heard of.

I think Never Seconds is one of the most important Scottish food blogs. It hasn’t been going very long (first post 8th May 2012) and it’s a very simple and very effective concept and it was clearly making a real difference – both at the school and in the wider Scottish discussion about what children get to eat at school.

As Maryn McKenna says at

Can we all agree how monumentally stupid this is?

Here we have a kid who got excited enough about feeding children well that she not only changed the food in her own district — within two weeks, officials were allowing children in her school to have “unlimited salads, fruit and bread,” which apparently was the policy all along only someone forgot to say so — but also got children around the world excited about their lunches too.

Every day VEG goes to school, she gets a meal for which her parents pay £2. (If you want to find out roughly how much Argyll and Bute spend on each school meal they serve, the Scottish Government’s data is here.) And she takes a photo of it. She’s not the first photo blogger to do that and she started doing it because her parents assumed she was exaggerating about how bad the school meals were.

It seems everyone who had school dinners remembers hating them. (I was a vegetarian back before Scottish schools did a vegetarian option: I went home for lunch or had sandwiches, so my memory of school dinners is the glorious smell of chips. Mmm, chips. And then not getting any.) But then you leave school and well, they couldn’t have been that bad, could they? The general impression has been that the Scottish government is taking this more seriously than the Westminster government – certainly with much more concern than Michael Gove.

[Jamie Oliver], public health officials and doctors joined a growing number of education and food organisations in criticising the education secretary. In a move that astonished experts, Gove insisted that he would not apply the nutrition standards that cover all other state schools to academies and free schools – even after a report by the School Food Trust charity found last week that many were selling sub-standard products. The investigations, initially requested by Gove, showed that 89 out of 100 academies surveyed were selling at least one of the snack foods high in sugar, salt or fat that have been banned in vending machines in other state schools. Gove insists that academies, which enjoy greater freedom than other state schools, should be left to determine their own nutritional standards because they are run by responsible head teachers.

As the campaign School Food Matters says:

School food can help shape the eating habits that lead to a healthier diet. National standards mean that school lunches provide at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables every day for each pupil and they ensure food is lower in fat, sugar and salt by restricting deep-fried foods and not allowing chocolate, sweets, salty snacks and sugary drinks.

The Scottish Government’s Hungry for Success programme is intended for all schools in Scotland. But this was the first photo on the Never Seconds blog:

Never Seconds lunch - first photo

One square of rather awful-looking pizza, a sprinkle of sweetcorn, a single potato croquette, and a cupcake. As VEG says:

The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home. Today he made a Banana Loaf, shame I don’t like bananas, see I am not perfect!

The Daily Record ran a follow-up story focussing on a school that is making excellent school dinners with local authority support:

With cash from the Scottish Government’s Hungry For Success programme, East Ayrshire Council launched an overhaul of the way they approached feeding children in schools. The emphasis is on fresh, healthy, local ingredients, served in an appealing and attractive atmosphere. Success can be measured by the fact the number of kids choosing school meals has risen by 40 per cent in some areas. “We’ve been called one of the most creative school food systems anywhere in the world,” said Robin Gourlay from East Ayrshire Council. “Alongside better school meals we bring local producers and experts into schools to talk to the children about food. The end result is we have better than average food awareness among pupils – and hopefully that will produce healthier adults”. Day-to-day responsibility for food in the school rests with catering manager Margaret Paterson.

Burdzeyeview reports her experience as a parent of school dinners in two local authority areas:

The dinners the Big Chicklet got in Dumfries and Galloway many years ago were fantastic. Some of the best cooks in the region were in charge of producing these meals – many of them had their own businesses on the side catering for weddings and corporate events. They were fab and regularly won dinner lady of the year competitions.

When he moved to Edinburgh, he stopped. The portions were too small, the quality was poor. He went to a PFI secondary school. There was no proper dining room in this brand new school, the food always ran out, it was expensive, it was largely fast food, there were never enough seats, he and his pals used to go elsewhere.

Since the chicklet began school, there have clearly been attempts to improve things in Edinburgh but this week’s menu choices include a fried food option every single day (as well as fruit and salad bowls) and there’s not a lot of cooking from scratch going on. And this in a school with its own kitchen – a rarity these days.

The Daily Record asked a week ago:

So how can this school get it right on a tight budget when others still get it so wrong? Margaret Paterson believes the answer is obvious. “The secret is to cook it from fresh, using produce from local, trusted suppliers and to make it look attractive,” she said. “We don’t use those prison-style trays – instead we have soup bowls, plates and mugs – and instantly the food looks far better. Generally I think Scottish school meals are very good. We received a special Soil Association award for ours and it was presented by Jamie Oliver. He told me he didn’t bring his school meals campaign to Scotland because he didn’t think we needed it. However, things do go wrong sometimes. The school in Argyll that caused all the fuss maybe just had a bad day. They might not think it now, but all the attention and discussion will help them in the long term.”

Yesterday morning as VEG was having her pre-lunch maths lesson, the headteacher came and took her away from the class and told her that she wouldn’t be allowed to photograph her school dinners any more – effectively shutting down the blog. VEG’s dad contacted the school and was told this was the council’s decision, not the school’s: Argyll and Bute. Their website mentions a planned disruption to online services on 16th/17th June. Their twitter account is @ArgyllandBute and it has been getting a social media kicking since yesterday’s “Goodbye” blog post at Never Seconds.

Sign the petition asking Argyll and Bute council to lift the ban.

Andrew Page asks on his blog (with well-deserved praise for VEG as writer and photographer):

So why the need for the mean-spirited, authoritarian and unnecessarily nasty clampdown on the innocent activities of a 9 year old?

If the council had concerns about the use of photography in a school, all it has to do is telephone the school and request that teaching staff supervise or oversee the photography to ensure all pictures taken are appropriate. It seems the school was quite happy to support the girl, which makes the council’s actions all the more surprising.

Let us walk back to February 2012. Argyll and Bute’s chief communications officer, Jo Smith, had given a presentation in Glasgow to fellow communications officers a few months before, and at that presentation, Smith said that she had created separate social media accounts from the ones under her own name as a council employee, to keep track of what critics of council policy were saying. This was dubbed Spygate and Jo Smith was suspended.

Part of the presentation last September apparently included a blog assessment flowchart:
Jo Smith's blog assessment flowchart

You have to wonder how Jo Smith would have assessed the Never Seconds blog.

As far as I can tell from the Argyll and Bute website and the news pages, she is still suspended: towards the end of February, the council had appointed an independent investigator John Clayton. A local news source, For Argyll, declared that they believed the use of “spy accounts” by Smith was part of a pattern of online monitoring.

A couple of months after this, on 4th April, the Oban Times published a story about a FOI request that had been denied by Argyll and Bute, saying the information is not in the public interest:

Utilising freedom of information legislation,The Oban Times’ asked the council for emails sent between Jo Smith and council officers with regards any information obtained from social networking sites.

We also asked for emails between all council officers referring to opinions expressed on social networking sites and a list of social networking groups joined by council staff using work accounts.

The same day, two more council communications officers were suspended – this time, apparently, for sharing a joke about council officials on internal messaging. Obviously, legally, nothing that an employee writes to another employee on internal email is private – but it’s very unusual for senior management to read every email exchanged by junior employees. Normally, this kind of thing only gets someone fired if: the email was accidentally leaked to other members of staff or to outsiders, or if someone to whom it’s sent makes a complaint.

According to the Oban Times, their messages to each other were being monitored “as part of a separate investigation into ‘spying’ allegations against the council’s communications head, Jo Smith.”

The official statement from Argyll and Bute council

On Wednesday,April 4, two members of council staff were suspended pending an investigation. The background to both suspensions and the resultant investigation put in place to deal with matters does not, in any way, relate to any other investigation being undertaken currently by the council.

‘Both officers have since submitted letters resigning from their positions and these have been accepted by the council. As a consequence,this concludes matters as regards both officers.’

There seems to be some confusion about that. One of the two officers almost certainly resigned – For Argyll notes her former post being advertised for on 20th April but the other seems to be still working for Argyll and Bute, but as Information Officer not as Communications Officer.

The Oban Times reported on 26th April that unnamed “sources” within Argyll and Bute Council’s headquarters say

they are afraid even to make casual conversation in the corridors following the suspension of Dinah Mackay and Janet West on April 4 after two instant messages on the council’s Microsoft Lync system were discreetly intercepted by independent investigator,John Clayton.

The Argyll and Bute local authority administration is (since the May elections) a coalition between the Scottish National Party (13) and the Argyll First Group (3) of Independent Councillors. This is the first time that Argyll and Bute has been led by a political party: Independents (16) are still the largest single group on the council.

On Monday 9th April, Councillor Roddy McCuish, now Leader of the Council, said (in The Buteman):

Senior officers in the council are now spying on their own staff. If they don’t like what they see – they are suspending them. Let’s be honest, this administration hates any criticism and will go to any length to stamp it out. But we are in Argyll and Bute, not Stalingrad, and people have a right to their own opinion whether bosses like it or not.”

Councillor Robert Macintyre, then Leader of the SNP Group, added:

“We called for a full independent investigation when Jo Smith was suspended but were brushed off by the current administration leader, Dick Walsh, who was keen to sweep the whole matter under the carpet. The council’s chief executive commissioned a review with a narrow scope and with one external consultant, chosen by herself.

“Now we see that this was a completely inadequate response. Certainly it smacks of the way things have been done by the current administration – shoddy, secretive and second rate. We now need something much more wide ranging, open and honest.

“That is why Roddy MacCuish and I have written to the chief executive today demanding a full independent examination of the press department with a remit agreed by all councillors and with political supervision by the whole council.

VEG got the idea for her Never Seconds blog the week before the council elections, but her first post with the “one croquette” photo was a few days after. On 14th May the BBC Radio programme was broadcast (and the Argyll and Bute head of facility services Malcolm MacFadyen accused her on the programme of just making “bad choices.”

On 18th May VEG remembered (her dad had met with the council the day before)

I totally forgot for half the morning then at lunchtime it came right to my head to tell my friends they are allowed as much salad, bread and fruit as they like. I told them to spread it around the school quickly because no one had gone around the classes and told them. I was a bit nervous to ask but I did ask for more peas!

On 21st May a new wristband system was instigated to make sure students could choose their meals even if they were at the end of the queue for lunch

Today was an orange day! After my teacher did the register this morning he read out the menu choices and we all had to choose. I was given my orange wristband at lunchtime after I had washed my hands. This means I had ordered lamb meatballs and I think the system is so that no one can change their mind. I think the wristbands are a good idea because it was annoying when the food ran out.

On 23rd May the Never Seconds blog reached 1 million hits and VEG and her dad were invited to a meeting about school food organised by Nick Nairn.

When I started writing this I thought only my family and friends would see it so it’s amazing so many people have visited and you all care about school food.

On 25th May:

It happened today! As we lined up for lunch we were officially told that we are all allowed as much salad, fruit and bread as we want and that we had always been able to…..well my friends and I never knew that. It must have been a well kept secret. Everyone is really happy about the news now. We can have fruit and a dessert, fruit if you have a starter and both salad and veg! It’s much clearer.

Then there’s an uneventful passage of days – the Jubilee happens, an Olympics sports day, a couple of times VEG forgets her camera and posts something else instead. People are sending pics of school dinners from all over the world.

On Wednesday 13th June VEG

joined Nick Nairn at his cookery school for lunch today. Lots of adults who care about school dinners were there and they all cooked a school lunch and photographed it. I chose the one I liked best. Everyone was really friendly and I enjoyed speaking to them. Nick showed me how to make lunch and it was quick and really tasty and cost the same as my lunches. I ate it all.

And on Thursday 14th June, the new Argyll and Bute council close the blog down.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I read through all the Spygate stuff about Jo Smith, and watched the pile-up of anger at Argyll and Bute on Twitter, that whatever the wrongs of having a separate social media account to monitor what the citizens are saying about the council, this Twitterstorm would at least not have taken Jo Smith by surprise.

Whose decision was it to shut down Never Seconds – a blunt and stupid use of force to silence such useful criticism? And what connection does this blunt stupidity have to the abrupt removal, since February, of three of the most senior Communications employees at Argyll and Bute?

The last tweet on their account is dated 13th June (and has a typo):

Who, I wonder, is monitoring the @ArgyllandBute twitterfeed now?

Argyll and Bute Council: Lift the ban on the Never Seconds blog about school dinners

Note: At eleven in the morning, the council made a statement which turned a PR crash into a PR landslide. At twenty to two on Friday afternoon, Councillor Roddy McCuish made a statement which suggests Never Seconds will be back on Monday.


Filed under About Food, Education, Epetitions, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

19 responses to “School Dinners and Spygate

  1. Of course the ‘concern’ about photography is just a chimera to shut down the blog, and really quite a transparent one

    • I think that’s clear to all concerned – except perhaps the council themselves.

      VEG never blogged a photo that showed anything at the school except her lunch, or, on one occasion, a pair of hands holding the wristband the school had started using to improve the queuing system. The school were supportive, VEG’s dad was clearly very impressed with his daughter (and it was his camera) so we’re left with: the council didn’t like how much attention their school meals were getting.

  2. Fantastic detailed coverage of events… Good work.

  3. Milne

    I was a TU rep for many years, and researched bullying in the UK. This whole business, beginning with the girl and her blog, reminds me painfully of cases like those of Mary McGoldrick and Carol Hill. There is clearly a deep attitude problem in these sorts of organisations, where egos disguise little games as keeping “professional standards”. In particular, truth seems to cause an allergic reaction.

    What kind of moral message does this send out to the little girl and the sacked employees at town hall? I hope they all keep their heads up, behave properly, and look the other way.

    The funny thing is that I would not have heard of this if Argyll and Bute’s behaviour had not reached the BBC News site. I would never have heard of “Malcolm MacFadyen”, for example, or “Dick Walsh”. But you’re on my radar now, chaps!

    • Exactly. (And, exactly. This was just how to make it known to the world what problems Argyll and Bute had been having.)

      • Milne

        Hi there, Edinburgh Eye,

        Just how long have they been “having problems”, and of what kind? Where would I start digging in your (or other) back numbers, for example?

        Thinking on with your amplification of my point, it was something that wasn’t politically dynamite (though despicable and personally injurious) that led to the scandal that spawned the Leveson Enquiry. From little acorns, it seems – or should it be “from the mouths of babes and sucklings”?

        It’s now 1440 and they’ve reversed their decision (whatever it legally was), but too late – true colours have been flown.


        • HI Milne, Not in my back numbers – I’d never heard of “Spygate” before I started taking a look at Argyll and Bute council in the local press on Thursday evening. I was looking to find out what the council’s press office/communication background was – I was not expecting to overturn a rock and find the whole Jo Smith thing!

          Where I looked was: For Argyll and Oban Times. There’s been a bit about it at the time in the BBC and the Herald, but for the national papers it was just a blip – it was an ongoing serious story for weeks for the local press. A real proof of what the Scottish Review was saying about The silent destruction of Scotland’s independent press – there are other ostensibly-local papers, like The Buteman, but they’re owned by the Johnston conglomerate, and weren’t interested.

          Thinking on with your amplification of my point, it was something that wasn’t politically dynamite (though despicable and personally injurious) that led to the scandal that spawned the Leveson Enquiry. From little acorns, it seems – or should it be “from the mouths of babes and sucklings”?

          I think it’s proved the point that the new SNP politicians on the council very much want to be new brooms. But it also shows up the council officials heritage that MacIntyre and McCuish were talking about in April – a real resistance to public criticism.

          • Milne

            Edinburgh Eye,

            Thanks for that expert and detailed advice. Thanks also to Francis Horner. I’ll be off and take a look.

            How does it go now – “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”? I quite enjoy watching these people (without having to smell their breath) and I think you do too. If I were asked for one argument against any restrictions on the internet, the ease with which we can oversee this kind of thing is it.

            Why is it that folks who start off quite human change when they think they’ve become important? (That’s rehetorical.)
            Best of Luck, Milne

        • Francis Horner

          Have a look at esp re Spygate and long running school closures misinformation story to see the sort of stuff they get up to.

          • Michael Banks

            Read what FA have to say, but don’t expect it to be totally balanced in its reporting, it too uses it’s own bit of misinformation to enhance the sensationalism of its stories.

  4. Excellent coverage!

    I’ll link to this on The Mad Hatters if it’s OK with you.


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  7. Nice analysis. Thanks. I wonder why, if they were so supportive, they agreed to tell Veg to stop taking photos? Has she broken any school rules? If not, what were the grounds to tell her off?

    • I wonder why, if they were so supportive, they agreed to tell Veg to stop taking photos?

      I would guess that there’s probably a general rule against photographs at school except with specific permission from the school. So the rule existed to be invoked.

      The school had obviously decided, very sensibly, that a crackdown on VEG’s blog would just cause trouble – that there was no good reason not to allow a student to take a photo of her own school dinner with her dad’s camera. VEG mentions in one blog entry that her parents came back from a PTE very happy and pleased with her, so she’s obviously a good student / liked by the staff.

      But the headteacher, and all the other teachers at the school, are employed by the council’s education department. When the head of the department contacted the headteacher and ordered her to tell VEG to stop, that was a legitimate instruction from the headteacher’s line of command. If the headteacher had refused to carry out the instruction, in effect she’d have been proved right by events that didn’t happen – but I doubt she would have been able to prove that. (Who’d believe, before it happened, that a ban on photography in the school canteen would lead to a worldwide twitterstorm and a PR disaster?)

  8. SuJo

    Thanks for that – useful and helpful background. Once again I am reminded that in amongst the fun and facile stuff on Twitter there is some very real, important and immediate communication and response. Love it.

  9. Pingback: #neverseconds: How a school lost to a nine-year-old on Twitter | Firstpost

  10. Pingback: School meals in Edinburgh : The Edinburgh Reporter

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