BLOG: Reaction to Government’s obesity plan

The Childhood Obesity Plan was first published by the Government in August 2016 with the aim of halving childhood obesity by 2030. This week the second chapter of the plan was published outlining further actions on reducing sugar and calorie consumption and increasing activity levels of children.

Policy and projects officer Kirstie Hickson, who specialises in health, gives her response to the Government plans.

My initial reaction when reading the plan, other than how vague some of it is, is how focused on young children it seems. While the update generally just mentions schools as a whole, there has been so much emphasis in recent years on younger children with the introduction of the PE and sport premium and sugar tax being invested solely into primary schools.

In the recent update there is not a single mention of colleges. One of the proposals is that Ofsted will undertake research into what a curriculum that supports good physical development in the early years looks like. Why not research into this across the entire education system? I appreciate that habits can be formed in early life but evidence shows that young people are dropping out of activity as they get older.

Children need to learn physical literacy at a young age to help them to live active lives as teenagers and adults, but we need to ensure there is more resource and support into the whole education system to address levels of inactivity. When teaching English we start with phonics but do not expect that once children have grasped the basics that they have mastered English language, so why do we do this with physical activity?

Having worked in a further education college myself, I have seen numerous students who have had negative experiences of sport through school PE. There needs to be more research into secondary and further education and the reasons behind dropout rates and how to address these.

I think greater emphasis from Ofsted on leading healthy lives is good for the sport sector and long overdue. I remember three years ago when I had my interview at AoC Sport talking about how the ultimate policy change would be for Ofsted to judge colleges on their sport and physical activity provision, as then it would become a priority for the whole college.

However, when I read the vague proposal for the new common inspection framework, due in 2019, to consider how schools build knowledge across the whole curriculum and how they support pupils’ personal development in relation to healthy behaviours, I had mixed feelings. Having heard from colleges about the difficulties with Ofsted inspections when the prevent agenda was first thrust upon the sector, I fear the same could happening again.

While I’d still like to see greater emphasis on healthy lifestyles, in particular physical activity, it requires money and resources to deliver a successful and varied offer for students, particularly as some colleges do not currently have any sports facilities on site.

There’s been an increasing amount of discussion about mental health in colleges in the last few years, but for some reason we shy away from talking about physical health and obesity. It seems as though we don’t relate it as having such vast effects on the age group we predominantly work with.

I personally don’t see it as coincidence that as obesity levels are rising among young people, at the same time more mental health issues are occurring. People with physical health conditions are at much higher risk of developing mental health issues which shows how closely linked the two are.

Obesity is often linked with poverty and 4 in 10 college students are from the 30% most deprived neighbourhoods in the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. The obesity plan update also looks at strengthening nutrition standards in school catering. Whether this will apply to colleges is yet to be seen but I challenge colleges to think about the food options and particularly pricing in their canteens.

Unhealthy food is quite often the cheapest option, which doesn’t help when people do want to lead a healthy lifestyle and we need to show that we have student and staffs’ best interest at heart with catering in the way we do so well with other matters.

Overall the plan has good intentions and it’s great to see Government focusing on physical activity as well as diet. However, to be successful there needs to be cross-Government backing from both health and education, as well as equal investment and support throughout the education system to make this achievable.

To read the full plan click here.

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