The government lacks a coherent strategy to tackle childhood obesity

More must be done to educate and assist parents on how to raise healthy children.

Louie Woodall is editor of the Young Fabians magazine Anticipations

Earlier this month, some long-awaited good news on the battle against childhood obesity was reported in the national press.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as rosy as some would have hoped.

The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) revealed that the number of English school pupils aged 10-11 in 2012-13 who were obese or overweight had fallen by 0.6 per cent, from 33.3 per cent to 33.9 per cent.

It was hardly a victory worth shouting about, and the government let the information pass with barely a murmur.

Others were more outspoken, but not in praise of the findings. David Stalker, chief executive officer at UKactive, a not-for-profit organisation committed to getting the UK doing more exercise more often said “it was [a] very small drop” and that school children needed “better health and wellbeing education”.

He also urged the government to act to “turn the tide of inactivity in the UK”.

However, on childhood obesity the government is marching in the opposite direction. We all know that frequent exercise is the key to a healthy lifestyle, and that habits learned at school age can become embedded for life. But in 2011, Michael Gove scrapped funding for school sports partnerships (SSPs) after ten years of outstanding success, and in spite of strong resistance from British Olympians, head teachers, and Labour MPs.

In July this year, the education select committee found the government’s decision to mothball the scheme “had a negative impact on young people’s opportunities to access competitive sport in school”, and cited evidence from the Smith Institute which found a third of schools have experienced a decrease in school sports since their funding was scrapped.

The government has responded with inadequate new measures that fail to set out a long-term strategy for replacing the benefits reaped by SSPs. The primary sport premium, announced in March, will pump £150 million extra money into English schools to improve sports provision, £12 million less than that offered under SSPs. The funding will also only be ring-fenced for two years.

The government’s commitment to public health through distributions to local authorities has also been found wanting. In April, local authorities assumed responsibility for improving the health of their communities from NHS primary care trusts. The government said this transition would help tackle health inequalities.

Yet it turns out the allocation of spending is not weighted towards areas of hardship, nor towards the health needs of children and young people.

As Labour’s shadow public health minister at the time, Diane Abbott MP said:

“Despite all the promises, some of England’s healthiest and wealthiest areas are being lavished with the biggest pots of money. Given that poverty causes so much ill health, it’s common sense for more deprived areas to get extra support for their public health service.”

This common sense is backed up by the recent NCMP report, which explains that:

“a strong positive relationship existed between deprivation and obesity prevalence for children in each school year with obesity prevalence being significantly higher in deprived areas”.

And what about government funding for campaigns targeted at improving the health of children in their early years before school? It is welcome that Public Health England has consolidated its campaigns marketing budget across six major issue areas rather than the 20 campaigns that existed before.

Yet Start4Life, the campaign targeted at early years care launched in 2010, receives only 3 per cent of a £54.7 million budget.

More must be done to educate and assist parents on how to raise healthy children, and a coherent strategy on physical education is needed in our schools. Otherwise we’ll see those figures from the NCMP rise once more – and Britain cannot afford to let that happen.

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