Are we doing enough to secure a healthy future for British pupils?

Recent months have seen fresh calls for new solutions to tackle the school-age obesity crisis. Amid reports that overweight pupils underperform academically – data obtained from at least six studies by Scottish PHD student Anne Martin show that children who are obese at 11 achieve lower than average marks in maths, science and English at 16 – and findings that there is a higher incidence of serious childhood obesity in London than New York, figures like the London Health Commission’s Lord Darzi are claiming that the issue is “at breaking point.”
The government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) tells us that in the year 2012/13 33.3 per cent of UK children aged 10-11 were overweight, a majority of this figure classed as obese. We know that this carries serious implications for children’s health in both the long and short term, with illnesses like Type 2 diabetes increasingly diagnosed in those as young as five. Faced by this worrying picture, what can schools do to bring down obesity rates and try to ensure a healthy future for young people in the UK?

An inactivity timebomb
Insufficient physical exercise is widely understood to be a primary cause of obesity, as vast numbers of UK children are failing to clock up the hour of daily moderate to vigorous-intensity activity advised by the World Health Organisation. Earlier this year UK Sport chairman Baroness Sue Campbell spoke out against the encroaching normalisation of sedentary habits and the dangers this poses to the nation’s health, saying: “In the UK, and across the globe, we are facing a crisis of inactivity. The onset of sedentary lifestyles and time pressures both inside and outside of school mean that many young people are not being encouraged to lead healthy, active lives.

“The costs of physical inactivity are plain for all to see – childhood obesity levels continue to dominate the headlines, and we know that being inactive increases the risk of developing a host of other chronic conditions.”

School sport has been a key investment area for the government in the wake of the enthusiasm stoked by the 2012 Olympic games. Earlier this year it was announced that the PE and Sport Premium for primary schools would receive an additional £150 million annually, allowing schools to go on receiving £8,000 plus £5 per pupil to help give sport and physical education (PE) a much needed boost. This commitment is being reflected in the work of various public bodies; the school inspectorate body Ofsted has said that sport is to play a greater role in its assessment process, and the 2014/15 National Curriculum puts competitive sport at the heart of the PE curriculum (compulsory for all schools) in the hopes this will inspire pupils.

Positive indications
Early reports on the Premium fund, which was first introduced in 2013, suggest that children are seeing direct benefits to their health. Research commissioned by the government indicates that nine out of 10 schools are delivering improved PE lessons as a result, and that three quarters had used the funding for after school sports clubs or new equipment.
Of the schools surveyed between April and July this year, 83 per cent said that participation in extracurricular sporting activities had gone up, while over 90 per cent reported better behaviour and that pupils were fitter and healthier overall. Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan said she was pleased the investment was “having a positive effect.” The health gains were most visible in disadvantaged catchment areas – over a half of schools with more than a quarter of pupils on free school meals said their facilities had improved, compared to 39 per cent of schools with lower than average take up of free meals.
James Allen, head of policy at the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which represents sport governing bodies, said: “The funding is bound to be a shot in the arm for schools following the demise of School Sport Partnerships. Many schools are making excellent use of the extra funding.
“What we would like to see now is consistent and robust inspections from Ofsted to make sure that every school is getting its physical education offering right.”

The diet question
Another area receiving greater recognition in the fight against obesity is school catering. In addition to sedentary habits, easy access to cheap, high calorie, low nutrition food and drinks poses a major challenge. Sugar-sweetened drinks and fatty snacks can be vastly appealing to young people, and for parents it is often difficult to know what nutritional choices to make.
For many, the answer is to promote the uptake of school meals. Research published by the Children’s Food Trust in 2012 suggests that in schools with greater a higher proportion of paid-for lunches the incidence of obesity is significantly lower, and that these lunches typically contain fewer calories than packed lunches (395 kcal as opposed to 450 on average). It is thought that this could partially account for the modest fall in obesity levels found by the National Child Measurement Programme in 2013 (33.3 per cent classed as overweight or obese, down from 33.9 per cent the previous year).

It is widely hoped that the government’s introduction of universal free school meals for infant pupils this term, as recommended in the School Food Plan, will give young people a healthy start in life and benefit families. After a successful pilot scheme involving local authorities in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton, the decision was made to allocate £2.30 per pupil per meal, £150 million in capital funding and transitional funding of £22.5 million to roll out the scheme nationwide.
Children’s Food Trust chief executive Linda Cregan commented on the new policy: “[We have] always believed all children have the right to have a nutritious balanced diet and putting both the funding and legislation in place is a huge step towards this. Making sure our infant school children have access to healthy school meals is vital for them to stand the best chance of reaching their full potential and growing up healthy.”

Compulsory cooking
Another step in the fight against obesity is the revision of this year’s National Curriculum for Cookery to make cookery lessons compulsory for children up to age nine. Key stage one pupils will learn how to prepare basic dishes, and by key stage 3 it is expected that they will be ‘competent in a range of cooking techniques.’ Hygiene and nutrition will be covered, giving children a range of skills enabling them to stay healthy and opt out of the poor nutritional choices so easily accessible in the world outside the school kitchen.
Maggie Sims, head of Let’s Get Cooking at the Children’s Food Trust, said: “We think being able to look after your health is just as important as learning to read and write – which is why practical cooking must be part of children’s compulsory education, and we are thrilled that it will be soon.
“Every parent knows how difficult it can be to get children to try new foods, particularly fruit and veg. What we see every day in our work is that learning to cook has a real impact on people’s understanding of which foods are healthy and on their willingness to give them a try.”
It remains to be seen whether these and other initiatives will make a real dent in the statistics, but at this early stage there are promising signs. The 2012 Olympics gave youth sports a much needed boost that seems to have translated to long term investment, as borne out by the positive reports coming from schools on the Sports Premium fund. However, complacency is not a luxury we can afford; as a Department of Health spokesperson said recently, “there is no magic bullet to solve the problem, and everyone has a role to play. We know that childhood obesity is at its lowest since 1998 but more should be done.”

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