Getting fit and 
healthy from school age

You’ve had the best part of a term to read up the excellent and long-promised Henry Dimbleby/John Vincent School Food Plan and welcome the political deal that will bring free school meals [FSM] highlighted in the plan to your schools next September.

Simultaneously, you’ll also have had plenty of time to rue the day in 2003 when another political deal promised an Olympic sporting legacy for our schoolchildren on the back of London 2012.
In July, the House of Commons’ Education Committee could rue Tony Blair’s pledge no longer and showed his and successive governments a red card for kicking school sport around as a political football and ditching the opportunities thay would ensure that the pledge could be fulfilled. For as much that Westminster giveth, Westminster also taketh away.

Regarding FSM, It is frankly amazing that so much negativity surrounded Nick Clegg’s “coalition“ announcement this September. For the people who really know about the issue – and can prove the value of providing all schoolchildren with good food – the proposal to make it free for them is a no-brainer.

Success in South London
Take, for instance, the case of Southwark, a London Borough which stretches from the trendy Thames Southbank, traverses some pretty impoverished South London communities and finishes up in the more leafy, well-heeled environment of Dulwich. Southwark began its free meals service in 2010 and are already certain of the rewards from its business plan. Council Leader, Peter John, agreed in a letter to The Times that initially the proposal was not without controversy but, three years on, is now a policy widely supported by the parents and community. As elsewhere in the country, this means that rich kids’ meals are being subsidised by the ratepayer. But so what? Rich kids get their NHS services free at the point of delivery and no-one fusses about that.
Southwark’s policy removes a disincentive to work and puts money back into the pockets of families according to John. “Parents have reported that their children now come home asking for healthy food and, simultaneously, parents are able to afford books, dance and other extracurricular activities for their children for the first time. The money spend directly supports the local economy. This is a policy which helps all children but helps those children who are most disadvantaged most.” In the long run, the cost should be weighed against the benefits to children, their families and society.

Extending the provision
The School Food Plan, interestingly, appears
 not to reference Southwark in its pages but reflects similar positive FSM experiences in both London and English local authorities.    

Though the government’s deal guarantees FSM only for the first three primary years, September’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester saw the launch of a Manifesto campaign to extend the provision to all six years in the event that Labour regains power in 2015. Could it just be that Michael Gove, finally persuaded that FSM for everyone is worth it, may also write that written into a Conservative Manifesto, too?  
When it comes to Manifesto writing he would be well advised to listen to his Department’s Education watchdog and write provision for sustainable sports funding and daily school PE. His £300m short-term funding for primary schools to improve PE and sport, albeit ring-fenced, wasn’t nearly enough to impress the Education Committee which declared that “occasional pump‑priming “ is not enough. It added for good measure than the primary sport premium is inadequate. Gove might also take a look at the recommendation to the Welsh Assembly by the inspirational Olympian, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. She is convinced that PE should be given the same status as maths or English to tackle obesity and that all teachers should be required to demonstrate proficiency as part of their training. This would be partial compensation for the country’s dearth of qualified PE instructors and resonate with the Association of Independent Primary Schools.
This body has offered to train the state sector’s would-be PE staff and, coincidentally, welcome primary schools sharing nearby prep school facilities. Such munificence might stick in some headteachers’ craw but is made with genuine goodwill: the offer should be accepted. 
If any further prompt to act were required, the December edition of the Journal of Sports Sciences should sort Gove out. A study in the journal it will confirm that society’s obsession with childhood obesity may be masking a “time bomb“ of sloth. Though it found that schools in Essex could show obesity levels falling from 13 per cent of 10 year-olds to eight per cent of 15 year-olds, it also found that the proportion of unfit children rocketed 15 per cent to 40 per cent respectively. The realisation that nearly half of our 15 years are unfit “frightened“ the researchers who feared worse to come when the children, having left school, will let exercise fall off their radar. 

Testing fitness levels
Fitness tests, more commonly known as “bleep tests“ because of the electronic bleeps that call time on participants racing between two fixed points, are audit measures that the researchers recommend should be taken up in every school. The tests are a cheap and effective way of determining how healthy participants may be for their gender and size. In brief, Gove should consider using them and amend the curriculum to ensure that a substantial element of the daily one hour of moderate to vigorous intensity activity that a child needs is achieved at school. On current showing, an intolerable number of children haven’t a chance of achieving these exercise guidelines unless PE is timetabled within an extended school day.
Sir Liam Donaldson, a former Chief Medical Officer [CMOs] for England and the man who wrote the guidelines as long ago as 2005, is a fan of fitness tests and thinks that they should be comprehensive trialled. Unbelievably, he first called for this in 2009 when the anticipated Olympic legacy was still a goer – but was roundly ignored in Whitehall. From his new position as chair of health policy at London’s Imperial College he is repeating his recommendation and it would be nice if someone in the Department for Education listened to him four years later. Without the broad base of all children experiencing the joy and value of exercise from the earliest opportunity, Team GB may well be pushed to return from Rio with more than a couple of week’s memories of an Argentinian Summer.

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