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Childhood obesity plan: too little, too late?

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On 18 August 2016, the Department of Health published “Childhood obesity: a plan for action”, which has significant implications for schools – but is the plan wide-ranging enough to make a real difference ?

Under new government plans, primary schools will be expected to offer at least 30 minutes of “moderate to vigorous” physical activity every day, through break times, extra-curricular PE clubs and active lessons.

Parents/carers will also be responsible for encouraging their children to undertake an additional 30 minutes of daily exercise outside of school hours, and a Public Health England advice pack will outline ways that schools can work with school nurses, health centres and LA healthy weight teams.

The government expects schools to fund the extra daily physical activity via revenue raised by the sugar tax levy, which will double the value of the PE and sport premium, including £10 million set aside for breakfast clubs.

A new, voluntary “healthy schools rating scheme” will be introduced from September 2017, which will inform Ofsted inspections, alongside assessment of how the extra funding is being used to assist with these new measures.

Widespread criticism

The government’s strategy has been widely condemned for failing to take a universal approach towards childhood obesity, with some commentators suggesting that the main responsibilities for tackling childhood obesity have been shifted on to schools.

Paul Gately, Professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Beckett University concluded that the government’s decision to expect schools to manage the crisis was a “major shortcoming” of the strategy, adding that “it is hard to see how attempts to cram more into the already overburdened school day will meet with much success”, especially without clear measures to encourage parents/carers to fulfil their responsibilities.

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Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Leaders, commented: “Once again, the government’s thinking is not joined up – if it wants children to do more exercise, it should stop allowing free schools to open in buildings without any outside space for children to run around and not allow schools to sell off their playing fields.”

Ms Bousted also warned that the new healthy schools ratings must not be used as “yet another inspection criteria with which to beat schools”.

Arguably, the most vocal advocate of plans to tackle childhood obesity is chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver, who was notable in his blunt assessment of the government’s failure to implement his suggestions to “control forces that can have a negative impact” on children’s diets, such as “big businesses advertising on TV” and dubious tactics used by supermarkets to sell unhealthy snacks to children, via their parents.

Of the plan, Mr Oliver said: “It could have been one of the most important pieces of work of our time, but instead, it was prepared and delivered in the most underhand, insensitive, unstrategic way. Everything about it stinks of ‘we don’t care’. We need to face facts: this problem won’t go away unless we face it head on.”

Missing the point

So, why does the plan fall short of the mark?

During a diplomatic tour of Asia last year, former Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that not only do 10 percent of children enter their primary school years overweight, 20 percent are obese by the time they leave primary school. It was for this reason alone, that the decision was made to concentrate specifically on this phase of childhood development.

It is particularly concerning then, that the government has apparently ignored the critical period when children’s weight patterns and eating habits are developed – the early years of life.

According to recent research, a quarter of children aged between two- and five-years-old are overweight or obese before they even set foot in school. This shocking statistic can’t be blamed on genetics either, as the number of overweight children has doubled in the last 20 years, outstripping the rate of genetic change. Maternal obesity and excessive weight gain during pregnancy also correlates with the increasing risk of childhood obesity by two to three times.

Breastfeeding is also a critical component of healthy weight development, with scientific analysis suggesting that for each month of breastfeeding, the risk of childhood obesity falls by four percent. Many parents rely on shop-bought baby foods, which are often lower in nutrients than many homemade meals and predominantly focus on sweeter tastes, contributing to youngsters’ increasing sugar intake.

As the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the world, 50 percent of pregnant women are overweight and 75 percent of infants are introduced to solids before they are five months old, all of which are critical factors in childhood obesity, a case can clearly be made for government investment in this phase of childhood development.

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Therefore, it’s revealing that the government’s Change4life campaign, centred on establishing healthy lifestyle habits, is heavily funded by formula and baby food companies, in spite of the established link between formula feeding, early introduction of solids and obesity.

It’s even more significant when the Welsh government has already developed a more comprehensive approach to childhood obesity than the Department of Health’s final offering. Six of the ‘ten steps to a healthy weight’ cover preconception, pregnancy and the early years of children’s lives, helping them to lead healthy lives as early as possible.

Poor diet impedes academic performance

As the Department of Health’s plan doesn’t appear to invest in early prevention, it means the government is missing opportunities to reduce the number of children who begin primary school already classed as obese. As negative eating patterns are more likely to be established once a child is at primary school, it is more difficult for schools to encourage pupils to reverse these habits.

According to the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), nearly a fifth of 10- to 11-year-olds are obese and a quarter of young people aged 13 to 18 have ordered a takeaway to be delivered to their school, usually placing their order via smartphone. Almost half of the 500 children surveyed were able to access unhealthy snacks from a fast food outlet or a sweetshop less than a two-minute walk from the school gates.

According to the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, there is persuasive evidence to support claims that poor dietary choices affect children’s cognitive abilities. The importance of a healthy breakfast was particularly highlighted, as academic performance is most clearly affected when children miss breakfast, with the execution of demanding tasks involving working memory most affected.

Disadvantaged children from the most deprived areas of the UK are also more likely to skip breakfast, meaning that they are most at risk for poor school performance; so satisfying, nutritious breakfasts offered through school breakfast clubs are critical to changing these statistics.

Other indirect effects on cognitive ability include the negative impact of hyperactive behaviour. The link between food additives and hyperactivity has been hotly debated for many years, but a recent, comprehensive review found that artificial food colours have a small but measurable negative impact on children’s behaviour.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Both pre-school and school-aged children were found to be more hyperactive after consuming foods containing artificial colours, including those who were not diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The researchers suggested that sensitivity to food additives can negatively impact on learning environments, if the majority of the class are exhibiting changes in behaviour.

In spite of the compelling research, schools will still be expected to bear the responsibility for implementing the government’s strategy, so what can your school do to implement the plan and promote healthy lifestyle habits?

Strategies to encourage healthy habits

  • Find out more about the government’s childhood obesity strategy, by reading our summary of the plan here.
  • Ensure your school’s approach to healthy eating is up to scratch, by using our Healthy Eating Policy.
  • Help pupils to stay active at lunchtime by organising group games.
  • Encourage parents/carers to leave the car at home and walk their child to or from school.
  • Organise educational visits to organic farms so that pupils can see where their food came from, then plan healthy meals and cooking lessons around produce seen on the visit.
  • Measure out the sugar and fat content contained in unhealthy snacks into ‘spoonfuls’, so pupils understand what the quantities look like. Then, explain how to convert amounts of sugar and fat content on food labels into more easily understood measures, such as teaspoons or tablespoons.
  • Educate pupils to understand what healthy servings look like. Pupils could use playdough and plates to model healthy portions sizes of each food group.
  • Provide parents/carers with advice on preparing healthy packed lunches.
  • Organise activities such as sponsored walks, skipping competitions, assault courses, or danceathons to motivate pupils to keep moving.
  • Encourage pupils who struggle with staying active, by teaching them about growth mindsets and focussing on achieving their ‘personal best’ rather than comparing themselves to others. Read our guidance document Developing a Growth Mindset for further ideas.
  • Emphasise the link between healthy bodies and healthy minds when encouraging pupils to make lifestyle changes.


Amy Brown (2016) ‘Childhood obesity plan forgets about babies and toddlers’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]

Centre for Educational Neuroscience (N.D) ‘Diet makes a difference to learning’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]

Jamie Oliver (2016) ‘This was our PM’s big moment and she failed our children’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]

John Dickens (2016) ‘Schools expected to provide 30 minutes of daily exercise for pupils under new government obesity strategy’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]

Matthew Holehouse and Ben Riley-Smith (2016) ‘Jamie Oliver helping government with child obesity strategy, David Cameron reveals’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]

The Telegraph (2016) ‘One in four children ‘have ordered a fast-food delivery to their school’’, <> [Accessed: 23 August 2016]









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