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Tackling childhood obesity: a shared problem

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What role do schools have in reducing childhood obesity? What should they be doing to stem the tide? And is this their responsibility? These are all important questions.

Last year, as part of our continuing research programme, we set out to understand what schools are doing to help reduce and prevent childhood obesity. Most crucially, we wanted to know whether schools are demonstrably having an impact on obesity levels and what schools might learn from each other in this area. This research has been published today and we think it makes for thought-provoking reading.

First, I want to stress that this research is not about reaching a consensus. We knew that our findings would not please everyone and might even ruffle a few feathers.

The Soil Association and School Food Matters asked for their names to be removed from our advisory panel before publication because they disagreed with the conclusions of the report. This is regrettable because they provided helpful advice earlier in the process. But, as ever, different groups will have different views about what is a very tricky policy area.

We have a duty to present the evidence that we find, even when that goes against the interests of a particular lobby group. And, as the report sets out, many schools are doing a brilliant job of teaching children about healthy living. But there are always those who want schools to do even more on their particular issue.

As to the description of the methodology as flawed, the report sets out exactly how we carried out the study, what we found and what conclusions we drew from it. I am happy to let people judge this for themselves.

For this piece of research, Ofsted inspectors visited over 60 schools around the country and spoke to headteachers, governors, teachers, catering staff, school nurses, pupils and parents. They observed lessons related to healthy eating and physical activity and looked at extra-curricular provision and the content of school lunches. A broad piece of work!

A plate holding a burger and fries.

What impact are school interventions having?

Let’s start by setting out the scale of the problem. By the start of primary school, almost a quarter of children in England are overweight or obese. This rises to over a third by the time children leave year 6.

The long-term effects of obesity on health and well-being are well understood, so this is a particularly stark picture. It’s understandable that the issue has been given such a high priority by government.

We found that most schools have responded really well to government initiatives over time, including expectations around physical activity and healthy eating. But it was not clear that the specific interventions that schools make could, in themselves, overcome other factors that affect the weight of their pupils.

So what does this mean? Should schools just give up?

Of course they should not. Schools do have a hugely important role to play in encouraging healthy lifestyles and exercise and setting good habits for life. But, as the report points out, this should be done by doing what they do best: educating.

Schools have a crucial role to play in reinforcing messages about choices that lead to better health. They also have responsibility for a broad, rich curriculum that gives children a solid body of knowledge about healthy living and the know-how to pursue it. Children need to learn how our bodies work, why physical health is important and how to prepare food. They need to grow in competence in sport and physical pursuits so that being active is enjoyable for them as well as challenging. Children also need to be given plenty opportunities for physical activity at school that makes them puff!

But our evidence suggests that schools alone cannot have a direct and measurable impact on children’s weight. There are too many factors beyond the school gate that make this impossible for them to control. Families, government, industry and other parts of the public sector all have a role to play in making food and drink healthier and in supporting children to make better choices. And, by focusing on activities other than education, we risk schools neither reducing weight, increasing health nor teaching children what they need to know.

A rich, broad curriculum

The report finds that getting the curriculum right is the best possible way for schools to have the most impact when it comes to preventing and reducing obesity. A rich, broad curriculum that includes high-quality PE, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) and design and technology (D&T) clearly provides valuable learning for pupils.

Unfortunately, in some of the schools we saw, these extremely valuable subjects were simply not being given enough time.

The report suggests some clear areas for improvement. These include:

  • planning a challenging and well-sequenced curriculum, including learning about the body in PE and science and about healthy eating and cooking
  • providing ample opportunity for children to take physical exercise during the school day – with lots of opportunities to ‘get out of breath’
  • teaching particular skills like how to cook or how to dance
  • updating parents on aspects of their children’s physical development such as agility, balance and coordination

A child eating from a bowl.

Working with parents

The report highlights the importance of working with parents, many of whom told us that they wanted to see more cooking and PE on the curriculum.

We also saw a lot of effort being put into activities designed to influence parents, but there was little evidence that they were having an impact or that they were what parents want. Eighty-three per cent of parents said that they had been invited to an event at school. However, parents also told us that they are time-poor. What they really want is readily accessible information about what their child is doing at school: what they are actually eating and what they are learning about. Parents could then follow this up at home.

In addition to timetabled PE, the extra-curricular offer is a good way to broaden the opportunities for children to learn new skills and be active. However, a quarter of parents said that their child could not access all the clubs and activities they wanted. The most common issue was that not enough spaces were available. When they were, parents could not afford the cost or the school had not taken into account parents’ work and childcare patterns.

What next?

Schools unquestionably have a role to play in the fight against childhood obesity.

Education for health is essential and must be done well. But this will not happen if we expect schools to solve the problem. Instead, an effective curriculum is one part of the wider fight against obesity.

Read the full report here.

You can follow Chris on Twitter: @chris_ofsted

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