Childhood obesity is one of the pressing issues of our generation. By the start of primary school, almost a quarter of children in England are overweight or obese.1 This rises to over a third by the time children leave Year 6. Obesity in children starting Reception has risen for the second year in a row. Naturally, this issue is a high priority for the government, and the recently published obesity strategy sets out the responsibility we all have to support young people in meeting the challenge.
Obesity in children happens for complex reasons. Every child is influenced by many factors and we do not have a full understanding of how these factors interact when it comes to individual children. However, the messages reaching children need to consistently reinforce the importance of choices that lead to better health. Without this, the attractions of sugar, fat and inactivity will more often win the day over healthier choices.
Schools have an important role to play in reinforcing these messages. They also have responsibility for a curriculum that gives children a solid body of knowledge about healthy living and the skill 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. Reinforcing messages, imparting knowledge and developing skill are what schools do – and do well.
In the shared effort to tackle obesity, schools should focus on improving those things they are best placed to do:
- Planning a challenging and well-sequenced curriculum, including learning about the body in PE and science 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 their children’s physical development such as agility, balance and coordination.
The contribution of schools is extremely important. But it must be about doing what schools do best: education. We should not imagine that schools alone can 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. Obesity is far, far more complex than that. School meals have to be healthy.
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