We cannot deny that children obesity is much more common today than was the case in the past.
It is predicted that by 2030 three quarters of British men will be overweight, and two thirds of women. Already, a third of children leave primary school weighing more than they should, with 20% of these clinically obese. Nearly one in four in Reception class are defined as obese or overweight.
We can easily identify the causes – more fast food, less social eating, a massive increase in, lack of exercise because of computers and paranoia that every other person on the streets is a child snatcher.
What can schools do? The answer is more than they are at the moment.
Walking To School
Back in the days of Hovis and beatings, we all used to walk to school. Sometimes, we would set off at 5.00am, after milking the cows and ploughing a field, a cheese sandwich rattling against our hips in a waxy bag. We’d get home at midnight, do our homework and clean out the chickens before a couple of hours sleep and on we went again. Something like that, at least. And we did walk to school. Two car families were rare (think of the Good Life, even Margot doesn’t have her own Volvo), roads were safer and it was what most children did.
Innovative schools offer walking crocodiles, supervised meeting points where staff accompany their students, addressing parents’ concerns about safety. But, success is hard.
Walking is not popular, children are brilliant at pressing their parents’ buttons and mum or dad have their own lives to live. It is easier to get in the car. Plus, budget cuts and changes to school choice mean that more and more children live too far from their schools to get there on foot. Indeed, the scenario in the previous paragraph never existed outside the pages of children’s adventure stories.
Of course, it is important to educate children about diet. But the chances are that given the choice between a coke and a glass of water, they are still going to go for the fizzy stuff. Educating parents is even more vital, but that is not the job of a school. Even if lectures are offered, it is usually those who need the advice least that are most likely to attend.
But it is here that schools can really make a difference.
Two hours a week, often less, is simply insufficient to address the nation’s obesity problems. Back at the turn of the decade I was invited onto the expert (ha!) panel re-planning the national curriculum in sport. At the time, I was in my second headship, and was a firm believer in the power of exercise.
I remember suggesting that the old ‘match’ afternoon be reinstated, when school teams could play each other, and the rest of the school participate in their own games of football, hockey or netball, while the non-competitive types could swim (not to learn, but for exercise), dance or try out yoga. I was laughed out the room. To some of my ‘colleagues’ I had committed the cardinal sin. I had promoted sport.
But, and apologies if this doesn’t sound very correct politically, it is what many independent schools do, along with three or four sessions of additional sport each week. I taught at a prep school whose week went as follows: Monday – Sport, Tuesday – Sport, Wednesday – Matches, Thursday – Activities (which were mostly sporting), Friday – Sport, Saturday – Matches. It was hell for children who did not like sport, and would have been a better school if options went beyond team sports – in fact it would also have been a better school if they had sacked the head, but that’s another story.
Variety may have been limited, but obesity was nil, and very few students were overweight.
Of course, the argument goes that if we are spending lessons running about, we are not learning. My own experience is counter intuitive. A lot of exercise motivates most students – and once in place, they tend to keep it up. As a result, students enjoy school more, have more energy, show higher attendance, have better concentration and are more motivated. They learn more.
Sport does not have to take place in a field, or involve a ball. For many a game of football is what they really enjoy, but there are many forms of activity that are non-competitive.
Walking to school will help with the obesity crisis, but is virtually impossible to sustain. Education is important, but getting that teaching to the right people is a problem.
Increasing the amount of sport in the curriculum to at least four sessions a week (plus clubs) will play a serious role in reducing obesity. Start in primary school, and young people will see sport as a part of life.
Not only will they live longer and have a better quality of life, they will learn more, too. This solution to childhood obesity lays in the hands of headteachers. It is time for them to act.