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Primary Education News
News Bad habits and bad food are killing us | Christina Patterson
Children are at risk, and where parents refuse to take responsibility, schools need to step in
When Diana Carney offered her back-to-school tips to parents, there was something she forgot. She did, it's true, remember the pencils. She did remember, on her blog – which is full of money-saving tips (quite touching from someone whose husband, as governor of the Bank of England, has a pay package of £874,000 a year) – to say that it was important to get pencils that last. She did say that she wanted to "promote the idea of taking care of items" and "using them for as long as they are functional". But she forgot to say that one of the most important things you can do as a parent is look after your child's health.
She forgot to say, for example, that it was important to make sure that your children sometimes got up from their screen and move. Quite a few children, according to a new study, hardly ever do. Half of all seven-year-olds, say researchers from University College London, do less than an hour's "physical activity" a day. Girls do even less. Girls might have spent last summer wanting to be Jessica Ennis, but, like the rest of the country, they decided it was one thing to watch sport on TV, but quite another to get off the sofa.
There are studies like this almost every week. We're getting fat. We're getting flabby. We're getting lazy. As Jamie Oliver has pointed out, good food doesn't need to be expensive. But people take the ready-meal option instead. We're used to hearing words like "obesity" and "diabetes" and "risk". We're also used to switching off. But this, unfortunately, is because we don't think about what it really means.
Being fat – really fat – is likely to make you ill. It can certainly make you a bit tired and listless; but we're talking about the kind of illnesses I heard about when I visited, a few weeks ago, a family in south Wales. I wasn't there to talk about health. I was there to talk about unemployment. The things to do with health were only mentioned in passing: the heart attacks, the asthma, the angina, the back pain. Oh, and the leg. The leg that had to be cut off a woman in her 40s. And the lung disease. Of the three-year-old, who was sitting there, on the sofa, in a fug of smoke.
The women were all big Nearly all the women I saw in that little village, were big. Women in areas of high social deprivation tend to be big. (30% of women classified as the most deprived in society are, according to the NHS, obese). Women throughout western society are, increasingly, big. But we Brits are the biggest in western Europe.
This is not a joke. This is, in fact, the opposite of a joke. We know what makes people fat. It's bad diet and not enough exercise, not cooking properly and not eating enough vegetables, and eating too much sugar, and drinking too many fizzy drinks. And it's growing up with parents who don't care enough about what you eat.
Certainly the state should do more. It should say that two hours of exercise a week in schools isn't just "desirable", but a vital part of a child's education. It should make sure that schools aren't full of vending machines stacked full of crisps, Snickers bars and Coke. The state should also do what its Tory education secretary recently suggested: spend £900m a year (which will be a saving in the long-term) on giving all primary school children free, and nutritious, school meals.
Schools should teach their pupils how to cook and how to eat, and that healthy food, as Oliver said, can be made cheaply. But schools also need to teach their pupils how to be good parents. And when parents are failing, they need to hold them to account. When children are getting fat, schools should call them in – to make a plan, together, to ensure that a bit of flab doesn't turn into a medical condition for life.
This isn't just about "lifestyle" or about choices. This is about teaching parents that keeping a child healthy isn't always up to somebody else.