The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

The problem of obesity and school responsibilities

What role do schools have in tackling childhood obesity? John Viner discusses.

Two of my grandchildren have recently started school where, for one of them at least, the highlight of each day is lunch. Particularly the sweet desserts. This is a boy with a real sweet tooth and school is a willing partner in his being able to sidestep his parents’ otherwise strict dietary restrictions.

They want him to have the freedom of choice but, at five, he can't be blamed for making the wrong choice. His parents have talked to the school but, it seems, parents have already brought the matter to the school’s governors and been ignored ‘because children need the energy.’

This kind of muddled thinking runs counter to the whole public debate about the health and welfare of our children and this blog is a plea to readers to review their own school’s policies in the light of both government intentions and NHS concerns.

Plan for action

Concerned about messages from Public Health England about the health risks associated with increasing consumption of sugar, the government launched its childhood obesity plan for action in August 2016. A year later, following sustained reports of childhood obesity, the plan was revised. It opens with the words:

Today (Jan 2017) nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer. Reducing obesity levels will save lives as obesity doubles the risk of dying prematurely.

The plan sets out some bold intentions.

  • Introducing a soft drinks industry levy.
  • Supporting innovation to help businesses make their products healthier.
  • Developing a new framework by updating the decade old nutrient profile model.
  • Making healthy options available in the public sector.
  • Continuing to provide support with the cost of healthy food for those who need it most.
  • Helping all children to enjoy an hour of physical activity every day.
  • Improving the co-ordination of quality sport and physical activity programmes for schools.
  • Creating a new healthy rating scheme for primary schools.
  • Making school food healthier.
  • Clearer food labelling.
  • Supporting early years settings to develop revised menus.
  • Harnessing the best new technology.
  • Enabling health professionals to support families.

    Engaging schools

    Clearly some of these are the responsibility of schools and, if the plan has a key weakness, it is its failure to fully engage with schools, as reflected in the rather confused thinking recorded above. This is not a failure of the schools but inaction by government.

    There does not seem to have been much incentive to ‘make school food healthier’ or for early years settings to revise their menus. Instead, any changes tend to have been piecemeal and largely school led. In contrast with my grandsons’ school, my local primary has an excellent policy on food, which sets out the following aims.

    1. To provide a range of healthy food choices throughout the school day and in line with the mandatory School Food Standards.
    2. To support pupils to make healthy food choices and be better prepared to learn and achieve.
    3. To ensure a consistent approach to healthy eating across the school community.

    Now that seems a very good start. It is a sad fact that, nationally, the obesity problem is getting worse. Public Health England have recently released data showing that the rate of severely obesity among Year 6 children has increased by more than a third since 2006/7 to 4.2%, its highest rate ever.

    In June of this year, the government published Chapter 2 of its obesity plan, setting out its determination to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030.

    However, despite the ambitious targets set out in the 2016 document, two years later the industry response has been limited and the overall 5% sugar reduction has still not been met. Similarly, the providers meeting the 2017 20% children’s calorie reduction target remained in the minority.

    Promoting healthy lifestyles

    Schools, we are told, have a fundamental role to play in helping equip children with the knowledge they need to make healthy choices for themselves, and in creating a healthy environment for children to learn and play. Of course, this is more than merely the food that they serve, it relates to exercise, sport and promoting healthy lifestyles.

    HMCI Amanda Spielman has jumped in quickly to say that schools are not a silver bullet to tackle childhood obesity. Nevertheless, early indicators are that the new Ofsted inspection framework, on which it is shortly to consult, will consider how a school’s curriculum supports pupils’ personal development more broadly, including in relation to healthy behaviours.

    What is clear is that, even in the face of a piecemeal approach and a lack of coherence in advice being given to schools, there is a clear and compelling moral case to do what we can to tackle the problem of childhood obesity – and simply suggesting that we can justify high-sugar desserts because ‘they need the energy’ will not do.

    Further reading

    Healthy schools: working towards wellbeing

    Addressing unhealthy lifestyles needn't be a brain-teaser

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