Grant Woodward: Entrepreneurs are born behind the tuck shop counter

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FAREWELL then, the traditional tuck shop.

Not content with annoying the nation’s teachers (some might say with no little justification), Michael Gove is now determined to arouse the ire of its schoolchildren too.

The Education Secretary, with his customary missionary zeal, is enforcing a healthy eating regime which, from next January, will see pupils restricted to no more than two portions of fried food per week. Sugary fruit juice servings will be limited to 150 millilitres.

This renewed emphasis on nutrition is, of course, to be welcomed. For too long our children have been allowed to gorge themselves on cheap junk food at school – a trend TV chef Jamie Oliver tried to reverse a few years back, only for furious mothers in Rotherham to start stuffing burgers through the railings to feed their apparently starving children.

Where Jamie led, Michael Gove is now following. But I have to admit my heart sank when I read that his drive toward healthier eating could spell the end of the school tuck shop as we know it.

I must declare a vested interest. At school I was put in charge of our tuck shop, along with a lad from the year above.

This was considered quite the privilege. Once a week a teacher would visit the local cash and carry, then deposit half-a-dozen boxes of confectionery in the dimly-lit storeroom off the main canteen.

Every other day, at breaktimes and lunch hours, the pair of us would unlock the storeroom and start setting up shop.

First we would sift through the newly-purchased stock, making careful note of what we had in an exercise book, before arranging it in an eye-catching display as best our limited, teenage male flair for that sort of thing would allow.

A list of items and prices would be carefully chalked on to a small blackboard and then hung on the outside wall, before the serving hatch was ceremoniously opened.

Often there would be a small queue of boys (mine was a single-sex grammar school) eagerly waiting to spend some of their precious pocket money on a Marathon bar or packet of Space Raiders.

It was quite a thrill for us too, sad as that may sound now. It was made clear to us from the start that the tuck shop was our responsibility. With all profits going towards school funds, it was up to us to make it a success.

So we brushed up on our customer service skills, gradually improved the presentation of our wares and generally got better at what we did. If a certain product wasn’t shifting particularly well we would make a note and reduce it in price.

At the end of each week, we would prepare a list for our teacher of what we wanted him to pick up from the cash and carry, based on what was selling best. We would also take a chance on another product, giving it a trial run to see if it could make us, or rather the school, some money.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but while we were having fun we were also picking up some handy business skills. We learned about the importance of presentation and how to deal with members of the public. We put our maths to the test and we had to think on our feet when faced with sluggish sales.

It’s perhaps no coincidence then that, having enjoyed his time behind the hatch, my tuck shop colleague went on to set up a successful business of his own, putting to good use some of those handy skills he picked up while selling Wham bars to third-formers.

It’s just the sort of hands-on experience in the field of commerce that today’s generation of students would benefit from. If we’re serious about inspiring the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, then I reckon the school tuck shop is a pretty good place to start.

So I hope that Michael Gove’s healthy eating crusade doesn’t put paid to the tuck shop entirely. Swap the Mars bars for fruit and yogurt by all means, but keep this institution alive in our schools – and get the pupils to take turns managing it themselves.

I have a hunch that, like me, they will rise to the challenge and relish the responsibility. And I bet they will learn more about commerce in a week behind the counter than they would in a month sitting at their desks. It will give them a chance to put their numeracy skills to good use and, most important of all, show them just what more they need to do in order to better equip themselves for life outside the school gates.