Home economics: No longer the ‘wife material’ course?
Food month: Once aimed at home-makers, the subject now targets a wide range of students with focus on balanced diets and food labelling – and the pressing obesity issue
Home-economics students Nicola Murphy, Eimear Lacey and Louise Brennan, making pasta at the food science lab at St Angela’s College, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly
St Angela’s College in Co Sligo, the only third-level institution in Ireland that offers a degree in home economics, must have the most scenic campus in the country.
The lake-shore college overlooks mountains, forest, Lough Gill and The Isle of Innisfree made famous by Yeats’s poem.
There are currently a total of 355 home economics students enrolled, but only five of them are male. Why is this?
“There is a misconception out there about home economics,” says Amanda McCloat, head of the home economics department at St Angela’s.
“Some people still think that it is only for women, and only targeted to the home, and home-makers.”
Home-makers in 2017 can be men, just as easily as women, which still doesn’t explains the uneven gender division between students studying this course.
McCloat suggests that part of the problem is some schools timetable more technical and scientific subjects against home economics.
However, it’s clear that an outdated perception of the course still endures, both at second and third level.
This is despite the fact a graduate student with a home economics degree is guaranteed a job, which is in itself rare in third-level education.
“All of our graduates go straight into teaching,” says McCloat. “We have full employment.”
There are other elements to the home-economics degree, including textiles. However, it’s core element is cooking from scratch and adapting recipes, along with such complementary skills as food budgeting, nutrition, and a robust knowledge of food labelling, healthy diet, food waste and portion control.
With almost a third of Irish children now overweight, according to data published in The Lancet last month, home economics has arguably never been more relevant as a subject.
As third-year student Louise Brennan says: “If children are not shown how to cook at home, school is the only other place you can learn. The subject isn’t just cooking either; it’s learning about meal planning and a balanced diet.”
Niall Farrell is a fourth-year student at the college. “I think the fact so few boys take it at third level partly arises from a preconception about what a woman’s role in society is,” he says.
“The stuff about a mother’s place being in the home, cooking and sewing.” There were no male home economics teachers in the school Farrell attended.
“I kind of wanted to break the stereotype of males not doing the subject. I hope I might be a role model in the future as a male teacher of home economics, and to encourage more boys to take the subject: that men can teach this subject too. At the least, it would be refreshing for students in a school to see a person of a different gender teaching the subject.”
Why does he think so few boys study the subject at third level?
“Once you are 17 or 18, it’s pretty embedded in your mind about where you should go, and what you should do. It’s not made clear in schools early on how important and practical a subject it is, and how empowering it is. Once boys drop the subject after Junior Cert, they are definitely not going to be taking it at third level.”
Emer Cullen is also a fourth-year student. In common with all the students I speak to at St Angela’s, she agrees that home economics not just has an outdated perception as a school subject, but requires vigorous and proactive promotion to break the image of its stereotype.
“We hear a lot about computer studies and coding and all the tech-related subjects. Home economics does not sell itself properly as a subject at school. We have a massive lack of PR.”
Cullen believes it is crucial to break the stereotype of home economics, and its related gender bias in the uptake of the subject, not just to students, but also their parents.
“Your parents are so influential when you are 11 or 12. It needs to be made clear to parents how important the subject is, and how practical it is. Subject choices can be guided by parents when you arrive in secondary school.”
“There is definitely a stigma around the subject, even at third level,” says Louise Brennan.
“It’s called the ‘cooking and sewing’ course, or ‘the wife material’ course. Students don’t see there is so much more to what we learn.”
“Knowing how to cook, especially for college students who don’t have much money, is so important,” says third-year student Caitriona Kelly. “We know not just how to cook, but how to budget. I could go out with €15 and make healthy dinners for a week.”
McCloat describes some of the dishes students at Junior Cert level learn. “Soups. Scones. Healthy breakfasts. Chicken stir fry. Lasagne. Chilli con carne. Dishes that you can adapt: if you can make scones, you can make bread. You could have brown rice with chilli, and use low salt stock cubes in say, a noodle dish. It’s about transferable skills, and learning to adapt recipes.”
“You learn practical skills you can use in your life, and time management,” says Eimear Lacey.
“Cooking at school, you learn to be comfortable in the kitchen with heat and knives and using gas. It’s demystifying the myth that only chefs can cook, or only mum and dad. It helps prepare you for real life.”
Much more than cooking and sewing: the key skills required for home economics students today
The new Junior Cycle home-economics syllabus commences in September, 2018. It was written by Amanda McCloat, head of the home economics department in St Angela’s College, Sligo.
The syllabus focuses on eight key skills: staying well; managing oneself, being literate; being numerate; being creative; working with others; communicating; managing information and thinking.
Below are some elements of the “key skills” that will be examined, along with examples of how students will learn.
Thinking creatively and critically using digital media: students will work collaboratively to plan a menu for one day for themselves, using apps. The recipe they source will be evaluated for nutritional suitability.
Communicating and debating: students conduct a lunchtime survey on the consumption of sugary drinks among a sample of their peers. Students then devise a poster campaign displaying the results and promoting a healthy eating message.
Confidence: students will participate in peer evaluation of dishes after practical cookery class in a constructive manner.
Making considered decisions: students will work through a case study on potential purchase of a new item of technology for personal use. They will apply their financial skills in identifying their available resources and needs. They will then make an informed consumer decision on whether or not to purchase the item.
Being literate: students demonstrate the importance of effective communication by making a complaint about a consumer issue either via letter or email.
Being numerate: students prepare a food budget; adapt recipes for varying numbers of people on a budget; and weigh and measure ingredients.