Reshaping the nation: physical activity’s role in tackling childhood obesity

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As politicians return from summer recess, the Alliance’s Parliamentary and Policy Officer, Charlotte Adams, reflects on physical activity’s role in tackling childhood obesity and our parliamentary priorities for the coming months.

Radio 4’s The Fix brings twelve talented young people together to solve a complex policy problem in just one day. A recent episode caught my attention as contestants were tackling childhood obesity and the teams suggested some innovative solutions. The groups’ ideas focused on healthy eating and what was striking is that only one team proposed physical activity as a partial solution to combatting childhood obesity.

Are policy makers and the physical activity sector doing enough to promote physical activity as an antidote to childhood obesity? A year on since the publication of Childhood obesity: a plan for action, Government has progressed several key recommendations which put physical activity at the heart of the solution. Following the 2017 Finance Act, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) will become law next year and will double the money available for primary school sport. Yet Government could go further and fund physical education and school sport from the levy, irrespective of the total revenue raised, to cover the lifetime of this Parliament – not just until the end of the spending review 2019/20 which is the current commitment. This would make sure that as many children as possible get active.

Decision makers should also recognise that the changes to the Healthy Pupils Capital Programme (HPCP) could have profound consequences for school sport. The programme will boost funding for after school sports clubs and encourage healthy eating. Yet just before the summer recess, HPCP’s funding was cut by 75% – from £415 million to £100 million – despite Government guaranteeing just six months ago that funding would not fall below £415 million irrespective of the amount generated by SDIL. If we are to truly solve the problem of childhood obesity, cutting funding intended to boost healthy lifestyles and school sport shouldn’t be an option.

Department for Education spending guidelines for the PE Sport Premium (PESP) is an opportunity to reshape sport and PE in schools and help tackle rising childhood obesity. However, the updated recommendations – published a few weeks ago –  offer little concrete advice to schools on how to utilise the Premium. To deliver the PESP effectively, sharing good practice and offering support to headteachers and governors will help schools make the right decisions. 

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Additional Government support needn’t require huge resources and could build on the fantastic work that already exists. A range of organisations offer support and advice to schools – such as Alliance members the Youth Sport Trust’s self-review tool kit for schools and UK Coaching’s ‘coaching in primary schools’ toolkit. Those organisations have also worked with the Association for Physical Education (afPE), the County Sports Partnership Network (CSPN) and Sport England to provide more resources to support effective use of the Premium. Government should take advantage of the sector’s work and issue robust guidelines which could deliver wider, generational change and help get children active for life.

With Parliament returning from summer recess this week, we will be pushing Government to embed physical activity into children’s daily routines. Reshaping the nation won’t be easy, but with Government’s and parliamentarians’ support, we can promote the mindset needed to achieve this transformational change and make sure that all children lead active and healthy lives.