Getting schools in shape

Increased physical activity levels are directly linked to greater concentration and academic attainment, yet there are still many schools with little or no suitable outdoor space. Mark Hardy, chair of API, discusses what support and resources are out there to help schools improve their play and sports facilities.

In the last decade, 1.7 million children started secondary school overweight or obese, according to Cancer Research UK. That means that every year, more than 57,000 children starting primary school in England at a healthy weight end up overweight or obese by the time they leave. Obese children are five times more likely to grow into obese adults, with excess weight significantly increasing a person’s risk of cancer and other diseases.

Every school has a vital part to play in tackling the rising child obesity and physical inactivity crises. Forward-thinking head teachers know that the way to get children moving more is to embed physical activity into every aspect of school life. The benefits are immediate and wide-ranging. Active routines become a habit, and healthy, active children are likely to become healthy, active adults, improving their life chances considerably and reducing the NHS debt burden. Active routines improve learning behaviour too. Ask teachers what happens in the classroom after children have been physically active outside – they will tell you that concentration and attitudes to learning improve.

Are your facilities in shape?
Of course children can’t be physically active if their school has poor facilities. Well-designed, high quality facilities for outdoor play, learning and physical activity make a huge impact on school life, children’s educational experiences, health and well‑being. Expert designers of these facilities are the UK’s leading play companies – the member companies of the Association of Play Industries (API). API members work with head teachers, school business managers and teachers in hundreds of schools and settings to transform their grounds and facilities so that children have every opportunity to play and be physically active during the school day.

Campaign for play
The API campaigns for policy recognition of the value of play. We do this because a combination of negative forces is conspiring against children’s well-being. England has no national strategy or political champion for play, despite its well-evidenced benefits. Meanwhile, austerity measures are hitting school and local authority budgets hard, and there is a lack of government action to protect children’s fundamental rights, including the right to play. In short, opportunities to play and be physically active are declining. The resulting impact on children’s lives forms part of the grim picture highlighted by Cancer Research UK and others.

One welcome measure in the government’s obesity strategy was the move to increase the current School Sport & PE Premium through the soft drinks levy. We hope revenue generated will enable every primary school to improve its facilities for physical activity. But we want to see bolder measures still.

A new Physical Activity Premium
The Sport & PE Premium, with its narrow focus, must be evolved into an impactful Physical Activity Premium. This would provide the financial support head teachers need to take a holistic approach, for instance, to improve outdoor facilities for play and physical activity before, during and after the school day, and protect break times for play. It should also create outdoor classrooms and learning spaces, as well as build physical activity and outdoor learning into all aspects of the national curriculum. The premium should also create gardens and grow areas for nature learning and play, and to promote environmental citizenship, as well as make physical activity facilities available to the local community.

By embedding physical activity in school culture, with teaching staff and senior management as role models, healthy habits will become the norm.

Revenue for physical activity
Further levies must also be imposed on producers of food and drinks high in salt, sugar and saturated fat targeted at children. Revenues raised should be allocated to local authorities to improve opportunities for children to be physically active, both at school and in their local communities, with disadvantaged areas the priority.
Increased physical activity levels are directly linked to greater concentration and academic attainment, yet there are still many schools with little or no suitable outdoor space. To address this, we would like to see Sport England extend its Primary Spaces programme to every school, with scope to incorporate a wide variety of activities beyond ball games.

Ofsted assessment
There are many ways for children to be physically active, with outdoor learning and play, nature play, Forest School activities and gardening just some of the ways to get children moving more at school. The obesity strategy’s healthy rating scheme for primary schools could help here. We want to see a measurable outcome for physical literacy in schools, with agreed minimum levels of physical activity, outdoor learning and play mandated as part of the national curriculum, and outcomes assessed by Ofsted.

Help for schools
More and more schools are approaching API members for creative solutions to get children moving at school. To help provide the very best opportunities for children to be active, the API has created Schools Get Active – a dedicated hub that’s packed with useful advice and information. There’s a wide selection of case studies from across the country. For instance, find out how schools are using their new facilities to take different aspects of the national curriculum outside and how they are making the very most of small budgets to get the best from their outdoor facilities. It also has information on using a new multi-use games area to play a multitude of games while encouraging co-operation and turn-taking too. It also explains how schools are providing imaginative spaces for children to play in deprived communities where few families have gardens, and how some are using their facilities to extend opportunities for physical activity outside the school day.

You’ll also see how API members use exceptional design skills to ensure new facilities complement a school’s surroundings and how they transform unusable, damaged spaces into high quality, year-round facilities. It also shows how members create facilities for children of all ages and abilities, and work closely with school management teams to bring their brief to fruition.

For schools planning to update or replace their outdoor facilities, there’s a series of useful advice guides to download, from spotting the telltale signs a playground has past its best, to maintenance, inspection and how to keep your equipment safe. Plus there’s top tips on the benefits of using an API member, along with contact details for all association members by geographical area.

No rogue traders
Schools that work with an API member can be sure they will be working with reputable, reliable, experienced companies, backed by a professional association that is committed to raising industry standards. Every API member follows a Code of Professional Conduct and is rigorously and regularly checked for financial stability and security. That means you can be sure they will still be in business long after your new facilities are installed.

For advice on planning improvements to school playgrounds and outdoor facilities, and the benefits of using an API member, visit the website.

Further information