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Reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic have traditionally been the basic ingredients of a sound education. But starting next autumn, British pupils will have to master a fourth R: roasting.

In a bid to tackle the mounting obesity problem in Britain, cooking classes will now be compulsory in all secondary schools, the government announced yesterday.

The classes will start next September for all students aged 11 to 14 attending schools that have access to suitable kitchens.

However, those expecting a revival of the dark arts of making haggis or baking Yorkshire pudding are likely to be disappointed.

"The focus will be on simple, healthy dishes that can be used making fresh ingredients, like chili con carne or spaghetti bolognese, maybe a simple curry," said Ed Balls, the schools minister behind the policy.

In fact, shepherd's pie was the only traditional British dish among those that Mr. Balls suggested, which also included stir-fries and roasts.

A recent government study predicted that half the population in Britain could be obese within 25 years. Current trends suggest one in 10 children will be overweight within a decade. Politicians are putting the problem down to poor knowledge about healthy food and how to prepare it.

The study of food has always been on the curriculum, but tuition costs and the shortage of suitably trained teachers meant that most classes talked about food rather than preparing it. The government is planning to train 800 teachers to show teenagers how to chop, stir, bake and fry properly.

Those secondary schools without facilities - about one in six - will have three years to build them, a time frame some have criticized as too tight and too expensive.Surveys suggest hands-on lessons have been waning in popularity. "Home economics, which used to be taught mainly to girls, simply disappeared in the seventies and eighties," said one teacher based in London, "and it was never replaced by something that boys would study too."

In an effort to build enthusiasm around the plan, the government has asked members of the public to write in with suggestions of meals that might be suitable for pupils to prepare. Some dishes put forward yesterday - including deep-fried Mars bars and bacon sandwiches - are likely to curry more favour with teenagers than with the authorities.

In a reflection of Brits' attitude to food, the subject has been lumped in with the "design and technology" part of the syllabus since 1992, much closer to electronics and textiles than to art.

The subject will become a part of the national curriculum, but - perhaps fortuitously for teachers who would have to grade the offerings of 12-year-olds - there will be no end-of-year exam.

The revival of classroom cooking was acclaimed yesterday by health campaigners and food lovers.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose drive to improve school meals was widely referenced yesterday, said: "It's one of the things I was asking for three years ago and I've been trying to get the government to act on it ever since. It's of the utmost importance that all kids learn to cook good food from scratch and shop well."

Others were not so keen. Some critics suggested that the limited amount of cooking time - one hour a week for one academic term every year - wouldn't be enough even to teach the "Top 8" dishes the government plans to recommend.

One teacher, on the contrary, complained that the subject would take up school time that should be spent on "proper" academic study, and said teaching cooking should be left to parents.

That idea, so far, has not been taken up with much vigour. But whether a few hours of cooking lessons will be enough to alter the bleak landscape of British home cooking remains to be seen.