By Stuart Smith
Obesity amongst children and young people is on the increase nationwide, but the National Healthy Schools Programme is proving a catalyst for positive action, enabling schools to tackle the issue in a more holistic way. In Liverpool nearly one in five of 10 and 11 year-olds are now classified as obese and nearly 10% of reception children at the age of 5 are currently obese. The author describes how Liverpool has set a course to reduce obesity ahead of government targets and explains how it hopes to hit the targets on time.
I think the picture around childhood obesity in Liverpool, is a fairly typical one. The statistics are worrying and really serve to illustrate the vital importance of working with children on these issues from a very young age, teaching them about diet and the importance of physical activity.
But this isn’t just about statistics, it’s also a fairly well established fact that poor diet can have a major impact upon children and young people’s concentration, motivation, learning and attainment levels at school, as well as some fairly serious repercussions for their future health. Consequently, tackling childhood obesity is a key focus within our Children and Young People’s Plan; it’s a huge challenge for health and education professionals, and one which needs to be faced head on. As a Council, we recently set ourselves the ambitious target for not only halting childhood obesity in line with national government targets, but actually beginning to reverse the tide, reducing it by 10% by 2009.
I see it as an absolute priority to do everything we can to help children and young people make healthier choices in order to get the very best start in life, and against this backdrop, the National Healthy Schools Programme is proving an important and timely initiative. Not only does it link closely with our local priorities for children and young people around obesity, it also offers support on a number of other important issues which we are looking to tackle, including teenage pregnancy, substance misuse, emotional health and good citizenship.
As part of our involvement with Healthy Schools, we’ve focused a great deal of energy towards introducing a number of key improvements in our schools. Children obviously spend a good deal of time in school, and we’ve found that even simple changes made in the school environment can have a very positive influence. For example, we’ve provided extra funding for every secondary school in the city to improve their menus and dining room areas, have made more water coolers available and introduced fruit vending machines into schools, and are also now providing salad bars in all of our primary schools to help children to get their 5 a Day.
By offering a clear framework and a national standard for our schools to benchmark against, I think that Healthy Schools is proving to be a real catalyst for positive action, across a whole spectrum of activities and initiatives. It has also encouraged closer partnership working and a greater pooling of resources and expertise locally between the Council, Liverpool Primary Care Trust and other sports, education and healthcare professionals, which I see as absolutely vital if we are to effectively promote healthier lifestyles.
Recognising that obesity is complex and its causes many, there is no single ‘quick fix’ solution for encouraging healthier eating and lifestyles amongst children and young people. So we have also sought to introduce a range of interventions and preventions that stretch beyond the school day. For example, as part of the Council’s commitment to tackling obesity amongst children and young people, since 2006 we’ve been running a successful scheme with 15 different leisure services across the city, such as leisure centres, swimming pools and sports pitches, each offering free passes to under-17s to help encourage being active, whilst also removing the limiting factor of cost as a potential barrier to participation.
We have also been working closely with parents and carers to help sensitively educate them on healthy eating, and our hope is very much that this programme will not only impact upon pupils, but will also extend to their whole families and produce a lasting legacy of better health within our communities.
As part of the programme, we’ve also undertaken a huge amount of consultation with pupils and teachers themselves about how best to encourage healthy eating and more physical activity in schools – and I think the statistics speak for themselves. 69% of our schools have already achieved the National Healthy Schools Status, which is a fantastic result so far, especially when you consider that many of these schools are situated in areas of the City which suffer high levels of deprivation such as large parts of North Liverpool.
The whole child approach
For me, a real strength of the National Healthy Schools Programme is in the ‘whole child’ approach it promotes, which considers every aspect of a child’s physical and emotional health in a holistic way. As a result of this, on the issue of obesity for instance, we’re promoting opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity together, which I think is a far more effective approach.
A great example of this is the Healthy Schools Bus which we run with a local bus company Arriva and with the support of Everton in the Community. It’s currently touring around our schools to help educate pupils about the importance of healthy eating and exercise in a fun and accessible way, and has proved a very effective way to engage with children about these issues. In fact, we have recently had to introduce a second vehicle onto the road to continue to meet demand from our schools!
Ultimately, I feel very positive about the work we’re undertaking and the changes which we are starting to see taking place. In spite of a lot of negative stories in the national media lately about how children and young people are buying sweets on the way to school or choosing junk food from local fast food outlets over school dinners, schools in Liverpool have provided us with clear evidence that the more opportunities you create for children and young people to make healthy eating choices, the more opportunities they will take. For instance when we first trialled fruit vending machines, they proved massively popular amongst students. Many of them were selling out within hours of being stocked, and continue to need to be refilled two or three times each day.
Of course, only time will determine just how successful these measures are proving to be or how much long-term impact we’re making, but one thing for sure is that Healthy Schools is definitely helping to keep healthy living and healthy learning on the menu in our schools.
Stuart Smith is Executive Director for Children’s Services at Liverpool City Council.
For more information about the National Healthy Schools Programme, please visit: www.healthyschools.gov.uk
OBESITY STAT BOX
• In 2004 the Government set a target to halt the year on year rise in obesity amongst children under 11 by 2010.
• There are currently over one million obese children in the UK, and if trends continue, it is estimated that around 910,600 girls and 792,300 boys will be obese by 2010.
• Earlier this year, Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives, a £372m cross-government strategy was launched to address the issue and help the population maintain a healthier weight for a healthier life, with an initial focus upon children and young people.
• The Government has also set a target for 100% of schools to be participating in the National Healthy Schools Programme, and 75% of schools to have achieved National Healthy School Status by December 2009.
• 95% of schools nationally are already involved, and 65% of schools have already achieved the National Healthy School Status. This translates to more than 3.7 million children and young people currently enjoying the benefits of attending a Healthy School.