Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)



  Q400  Chairman: Can we explore why that is. What is the reason? A school I was in last Friday, the assembly display on healthy schools was on what you can do at play time. I find this quite interesting, that they were demonstrating how to skip—so a girl demonstrated skipping—and it struck me that that was common when I was at school: the girls would be skipping and the boys would be playing football or whatever. What are the reasons why we have moved from that environment to, as you have said, people sitting down in their lunch break?

  Mr Almond: Going back to the first question you asked me, the other major reduction is play at home—which makes it even worse. We have the situation where there are less siblings who are going to pass on play to their own children. As a consequence, play is going out of children's lives. It is simply being completely eroded (1) through lack of opportunities to play and (2) through the fact that there is no repertoire of games or activities that children can play. You used skipping as an example. The British Heart Foundation promotes skipping as a fund-raising activity and we have staff who go round to teach teachers how to teach skipping in schools because many of them cannot do an activity like skipping. It is this known notion that children are playing less. They have no repertoire of games or activities to play because they have lost it all, it has been lost over a number of years, and as a consequence boredom—"I'm bored"—is very often a thing that young people complain to their parents at school holidays and weekends. In fact, it is a very interesting observation that at weekends children do far less activity than Monday to Friday.

  Q401  Chairman: Do you feel that the school regime has had a role in this process? Last week, when we were in Leeds, we were talking to the parents of one girl who was quite obese. This girl was nine, and she would have passed easily for 14 or 15. She was particularly academically bright and the mother described her being taken out of PE to do more English, presumably because the school knew she could achieve high levels in SATs, etcetera, which would be helpful to the school in terms of league tables. Do you see that that emphasis on the academic achievements of schools has had a bearing on the kind of situation you are describing?

  Mr Almond: Absolutely. There has been a major reduction in the total amount of physical education time that is allocated in primary schools. I would not like to say it is because of the literacy and numeracy hours, I think that is an excuse that some schools use. I do not think that is the main reason. I just think physical activity has very low priority among head teachers and senior staff; many of the people teaching in primary schools do not have a very strong interest in physical activity; and both those factors combine together to say that even though there may be two hours physical education allocated in a week, the reality is that over the year they probably get less than 50% of that; in other words, the allocated time is nothing like real time , the actual experience in time. So children are doing less play, less activity in school, less activity when they go home, and less activity at weekends.

  Mr Lincoln: We have the lowest levels of structured PE in our schools throughout Europe. There has been that decline over the last decade or so. The statutory requirement—well, if you can call that a statutory requirement—the standard, is that there is a minimum of two hours a week, and that is it really within the curriculum time. Otherwise it is seen as an added extra. But there are lots of initiatives going on to bring physical activities and opportunities over and around the requirements of the core curriculum, and I think resurrecting play is a very good means of doing that. There is some very interesting work by the QCA at the moment on this very thing.

  Mr Almond: In Canada they are now thinking of introducing legislation in certain of the States, certainly Alberta, to have one hour of physical education every single day on the grounds that it increases attainment of people in the school. They have not mentioned fitness but the attainment of children in the schools. That is one hour a day, where we are talking about two hours a week in schools.

  Mr Lincoln: That is the health recommendation, that children are active for a minimum of one hour a day in terms of conferring health benefits and improving their health prospects later on in adulthood.

  Q402  Chairman: Mr Osborne, you wanted to come in.

  Mr Osborne: Yes, I just wanted to draw on the impact that the school journey has on this. My son is attending an inner city Victorian-built school. They obviously designed-in space for children to play. Half the play space there is now taken up with teachers' car parking. There is a great irony there, I think, in terms of what the school was built for and what its aims are. There is an impact there, in the way staff are travelling to school, on children's activity levels, I am sure. The other one is the actual access that children have to play space when they are at home. It is all very well having a very nice play area across the street, but if the kids cannot get there because there is no safe place to cross to walk to it, they have to be driven, and there is not a car around to drive them there, they cannot have the opportunity to get to these places. I think transport impacts on this in a whole different set of ways.

  Q403  Chairman: On the two hours a week issue, I have certainly talked to head teachers in my own area who have explained to me why, because of academic demands and pressure on them, they have had to eat into that two hours a week. You are probably aware—and I hesitate to mention Brent in view of today's circumstances—that we had planned to have Barry Gardiner, the MP for Brent North. For reasons you will understand, we have decided to defer him to another day. Barry has kept me in touch with an initiative with which he has been involved in his area, where he has several secondary schools, I think with effect from this term, doing a very different school day which includes two hours physical activity per day. I know he has had some difficulties in relation to achieving this. Are any of you aware of this initiative and, if so, what are your views on the kind of steps that are being taken by these schools in Brent?

  Mr Almond: We certainly are, in terms of the British Heart Foundation, aware of that. I recommend any initiative that is going to increase participation levels. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing here is to have structures—and we have got organisations in place—to be able to deliver all the things we require in terms of increasing participation rates and reducing obesity levels. The difficulty—and this is where this project may have an influence—is we have to influence the decision makers to be able to say, "Look, participation rates are important." Over the last 10 years schools have not raised participation levels. We need to give them a performance review; in other words, they will say, "If I can increase participation levels by two per cent, I am meeting my challenge."

  Q404  Chairman: So the Ofsted role comes in here, as it does with the food issue.

  Mr Almond: I was going to make exactly the same point. Any initiatives like the one you are speaking about, which would promote ideas for schools to generate and take on board, would be very welcome.

  Mr Lincoln: We very much support that initiative as well, and others. For example, the QCA have, I think, 15/13 schools where they are encouraging play in the school day which is structured. They are evaluating that. The early indications are very, very encouraging and we would like to see that mainstreamed a lot more. There are multiple benefits for the school. The head teachers, I gather, were bowled over by the results, because not only did it make the children more active and engage many children who had not been before in these supervised times with equipment—which does not cost a lot—instead of just wandering aimlessly around the playground to try to fill time, it helped in reducing absenteeism levels, it helped with behaviour issues and all sorts of things. So this was an added bonus to the head teachers. Also, the point about the Brent experiment is that it is a whole community engagement. We would like to see that there is a requirement on schools for there to be a proper policy for physical activity and healthy eating, and that there are standards—such as, for example, an extension of the national Healthy School standard—and that there is a dialogue and a contract with the community and with parents in terms of these things. Every school will have their solutions because of their situation—whether it is the environment they have if they are in the inner cities, and whatever their access is to facilities, etcetera, and the particular modes of transport to school—but we would like to see that as a requirement, encouraging the dialogue with young people themselves—who usually have the solutions to these issues—and of course parents—who obviously only want the well-being of their child: that is what they put first and foremost.

  Q405  Chairman: I get the impression, Mr Almond, from what you said a few moments ago, that you were of the view that the current decline in terms of physical activity within the school environment is not just as a consequence of the academic pressures and league tables and measurements on school performance but that the teaching staff were not motivated and perhaps trained to address this area of youngsters' development. Is that a factor from your point of view? How would you feel that might be addressed in relation to our recommendations? Are you talking about teacher training?

  Mr Almond: No. You have asked me exactly the one question I would like to answer. At the present moment, we have a School Sport Coordinator Programme. That is £440 million investment by the Government. That School Sport Coordinator Programme will be dispersed round the whole country within the next five years. That has a partnership development manager, whose role is to coordinate work between the schools and also the community to expand the partnerships that will work together, and their main focus is to increase participation levels. That is the first time we have ever had such an opportunity developed.

  Q406  Chairman: These are the LEA-based people, are they?

  Mr Almond: Yes, they are LEA. In other words the School Sport Coordinator Programme provides the infrastructure from which we can actually do things. We will not need any more money for that, what we need is the leadership and a focus. We have to provide them with very clear practice, not good practice but effective practice, of how they can increase participation levels. If we can get that engendered within that programme—because the money is there—I think schools will deliver. It will put physical activity much higher on their agenda in terms of raising participation levels, not just increasing more sport for those who already enjoy sport. For example, in terms of disability, almost one-third of children who are disabled just do activities; in other words, two-thirds are not doing any activity at all. There is a magnificent opportunity there because the disabled population is extremely keen to be active. We can raise participation levels there, but if we also looked at the obesity problem I think schools would take it on board, as long as we give them illustrations of effective practice. They have the means to be able to do it, let us put it on to their agenda and make sure it is a higher agenda. At the moment, it is far too low.

  Q407  Chairman: Do any of you have any thoughts on the way currently schools consult youngsters about physical activity within a school environment? I am very conscious of the way in which some children who spoke to us last week felt alienated as a consequence of being overweight and obese, and yet certainly we have seen examples where those youngsters can be engaged in activities that will genuinely help them and help their perception of themselves. Do you have any thoughts on that area, of how we might improve things?

  Mr Almond: I actually am Chair of the governing body and one of the factors I have been trying to do over the past three years is to encourage the school to take on board the notion that young people in their school should have a voice: they should feel that that voice enables them to feel a partner in this school process. But schools are reluctant to do it because it is almost saying, "I am giving away my authority." Once again, we have to provide people with the opportunity of listening to young people but actually responding to what they are saying. I think young people will then take us seriously. They will not take us seriously if we do not listen. I think schools have to listen and put into place opportunities to put that listening into action steps. I think once schools start doing that, you will get more work done for obese children as well.

  Q408  Chairman: Do you think the schools make sufficient use of the resources available to them in their local communities of sports schools? We saw a good example at Bradford Bulls Rugby League Club of the way a local sports club with a high profile can be used in respect of health. Looking at it probably more at an amateur level locally, do you think there are sufficient connections to be made? One of the things I understood about the Brent initiative was that, rather than placing additional stress on teaching staff, they are drawing in coaching expertise and clubs from the outside local community. Is that something that you feel could be done more? Do you feel that the new sports coordinator role may improve those links and make use of those links in a way that we are not doing at the moment?

  Mr Almond: The School Sport Coordinator Programme will do just that, because it has to involve the community. There is a slight problem, I think, with sport, and that is that sporting clubs are at the point where an increase of maybe 0.05 will just overrun them because they do not have the volunteers or the help to provide for any more children. I think we have to say that we cannot give them more children to cope with on the existing money they have got. We have to make either new money available or new resources. I would say that the whole notion of participation in sport and activities has to be a joint responsibility between the clubs and the people who provide leisure services and the schools, so we are working together—as in Brent. We cannot simply say that it is the clubs' job to do it: they are part of the parcel but we cannot overload them. There is a grave danger we will overload clubs and they will not survive. There is a programme we have with ladies called Rusty Ladies. They do not want to join clubs, they do not want to be part of a sporting competition, but they want to play—we call it sporting play—and they will do lots and lots of activities. I think the way the "club" is set up at the moment will not attract those sorts of children—it certainly will not attract the obese child. We need to rethink ways of attracting young people into activities, but see that as a community programme and not just as a club or a school or individual group.

  Q409  Chairman: If I may come on to you, Ms Longfield. The more perceptive of the witnesses will have noticed that our Committee is currently all male. I was going to throw in a question particularly about the issue of girls and women in sport and how we need to address the fact that a lot of the activities on offer in schools are very off-putting to girls and we do not relate to their interests. Do any of you have any thoughts on that particular issue?

  Ms Longfield: I was just going to say that I was slightly worried about the emphasis on sport because I am sure I am not the only person in the room for whom games lessons were a form of aversion therapy. I have never picked up a ball in anger since! Physical activity obviously is a much broader concept and I am sure the people involved in physical activity would agree. I mean, dancing is my thing, but there are all kinds of physical activities in which people and children in particular can be encouraged to get involved if sport is not their thing—and I think we have to acknowledge that it is not for some people and it is never going to be.

  Mr Almond: Jeanette makes a very fair point. I accept exactly what she is saying. The question you ask is about girls. If you look at participation levels from the age of nine to 55, they are very, very similar all the way through. There has been no change. In other words, once a woman or a child is into physical activity, they stay. They do not drop out, they actually stay. We have to go back to the very roots. How can we attract women/young girls into activity and make available a much bigger menu? Jeanette says dance. Absolutely right. Why can we not promote more dance activities? In other words, that it is not confined, if you like, to male sports but that we have a much broader agenda that is accessible to more children. Where I would come back and agree with Jeanette is that we have just done a survey of girls: Why are you not taking part in sport? "Because when we go and play against a school team, we are told to trash them, we are told to thrash them, we are told to see them as enemies, and when we go to training sessions all that is done is we are berated and shouted at." I would not take part in an activity where I am berated and told to trash people. I want to enjoy my sport. I think that is another problem that sport has. I suspect that Jeanette's lack of interest in sport is not because of the sporting activity but the way it has been presented and developed with her.

  Q410  Chairman: One of the issues that was picked up in the school in Leeds, Boston Spa near Wetherby, last week, was concern over having to get changed for PE and games. Particularly girls, and boys as well, were not happy during the adolescent phase at having to get changed. In this particular school, which had sports college status, they offered showers that were divided up, so that there was privacy in terms of changing and showering. Apparently that had had an impact on participation of girls and boys.

  Mr Almond: I think that is absolutely right—and it goes for boys as well. I think there is a privacy factor there that we have not addressed. Anything like that. It is part of the Nike girls project in making effective practice available to all schools, especially the sports colleges. Anything like that would be an advantage.

  Q411  Chairman: I want to bring Doug in in a moment, but one question before I do that: what about external factors like playing fields' sales or the cost of new sports centres as a factor in the lack of physical activity? Do you have any thoughts on this area?

  Mr Almond: As far as I am concerned, they are far too expensive and not inclusive.

  Q412  Chairman: What should we do about it?

  Mr Almond: It is almost exactly the same way as cardiac rehab: we have to make it a community-based project; it has to be accessible to everybody; it has to be within one and half miles maximum of where they live. Unless we provide facilities in those areas, then we are going to make absolutely no impression at all.

  Q413  Dr Naysmith: Could I first of all apologise for coming in late to this Committee. One of the great joys of this place and its frustrations is that we often have to be in three different places at once. I do apologise for that. The Committee Chairman has let me ask a couple of questions that particularly interest me, so if it is something that has been covered already just say so, and do not bother answering again because I will get it from the minutes. I particularly want to ask about the psychological and social concerns of overweight children in schools associated with physical activity and games. I wondered to what extent the personnel—and I mean the teachers and other people involved with this—take into account the psychological and social concerns of overweight children can have. I know we have just been talking about the idea of showers and so on and making it easier for people, but do people really understand the issues?

  Mr Almond: I think the psycho-social issues are substantial and often underplayed. I think that schools have not had sufficient training—not necessarily in the teacher-training—to be able to deal with obese young men or women and neither have they had any training in asthma or diabetes. Anything like that has not been made available. One of the most effective things we can do is to get the schools to look carefully at ways of integrating these young people into normal activities but also individualising and personalising programmes so they can do things. There may be some things they cannot do, okay, but there are lots of activities: sport and dance and adventure activities and fitness activities. There is a massive range, there is a great deal of potential.. The important thing which I think we have to get over, certainly with obese young men and young women, is that they need to be doing a lot of activity. School activity will make an insignificant contribution to the total requirement. These young people should be doing well over 60 minutes of activity a day, therefore the school contribution will be very small. But if teachers in schools could be sensitive—and I think a lot are—to the needs of these young people, it may very well switch them on to being more active outside of school. That is what they want.

  Q414  Dr Naysmith: How about dealing with bullying and name calling and the lack of confidence that some of these people have? Are teachers aware enough of that aspect of things?

  Mr Almond: Unless you have actually been a recipient of serious bullying and unless you understand the concepts of where we are coming from, I think it is very difficult to be very, very sensitive to that person, because you just think, "Oh, they're making it up." Because you have lots and lots of things to do in a day, you cannot devote most of your time to an obese child and therefore there could be a tendency, not to dismiss it—that would be the wrong word—but to put it on one side and say, "We'll do it later" or "We'll try to find something for you." The one thing I get constantly from obese young men and women is the statement, "They say they'll do things but it never happens. They are going to put programmes on but they never happen." As far as I am concerned, the most effective programmes have been the schools working with primary care. They have a family-oriented programme which is on two or three times a week, and usually a weekend session as well, but it is done in conjunction with the primary care teams. That is a much better way.

  Q415  Mr Burstow: First, may I preface my remarks as well with apologies for not being here for the beginning of the presentation. Like other members, we have to be in many places at once. Just picking up on this question of the role of schools and so on—and it is from personal experience as much as anything. My son is in primary school, he is in year one. His teachers this week have said to all parents of children in year one that they should cut back on out of school activities because the children are tired in school and are therefore not able to concentrate on their work and so on. There is an imperative around the curriculum, and requirements there on the school to deliver. How much does that get in the way of delivering the sort of things you are talking about, which are the very activities that will deal with and forestall the rise of obesity?

  Mr Almond: The main problem is that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) have explicitly said that if you are doing ten minutes of moderate activity it improves the blood flow to the brain, you improve your ability to learn and you improve your concentration. Therefore schools are doing the wrong thing by reducing activity, they are going to decrease academic attainment and they need to be aware of that.

  Q416  Mr Burstow: It is not so much about reducing the activity content within the school day, the message that seems to be being communicated is reduce the activity content post the school day. Therefore the question is whether the school day is already too long or is there already too much packed into a school day, and does it make much sense to try and extend the school day any further if that is the sort of advice and pressure that is on parents and on the schools?

  Mr Almond: If there is any recommendation that children cut down their activity then it will be for the Paula Radcliffes of this world who are doing about four hours of activity a day. That is the only time I would ever say to somebody to reduce their activity. I think young people can do lots of activity and spend a lot of time doing it and they will not tire because they become conditioned and better used to it, but I think it would be very sad if they are told to reduce their activity.

  Mr Osborne: I think it is very new evidence that has come through from the University of Exeter and from the California Education Department which says that they have firmly linked increased physical activity with improved educational attainment. That school is obviously not aware of this research. I think the education department here are only just acknowledging it.

  Ms Longfield: I am not sure it is that new as a concept. I guess quite a few people in the room have seen that brilliant series on television about the children who went back to a 1950s school and they had to wear the uniform, they had to eat the food and they had to do the physical activities and everything, it was great television. In those days it was absolutely axiomatic that you had to be physically active because it was thought to be good for your overall well-being. One of the amazing things about that that the Food Commission found out from one of their researchers associated with that committee is that the children involved in that project lost weight.

  Mr Almond: It was 15 stone in total.

  Ms Longfield: Which is absolutely astonishing.

  Q417  Dr Taylor: I think I am one of the few people here who was at a boarding school in the 1950s. The extra factor then, which I am sure these kids did not have, was the lumpy porridge and the lumpy custard and food rationing was still in so you could not eat well. I was going to ask if we should be going back to that because it was healthy and there was regular exercise. It was not a prohibition of snacks because the same snacks were not available. I do not know when Smiths crisps came in—

  Mr Almond: Not in the 1950s.

  Jim Dowd: You can probably remember the little bags of salt.

  Chairman: Were you asking a question, Richard, or was that just a reminiscence?

  Q418  Dr Taylor: Would it be feasible to be aiming towards going back to that style of life at school?

  Mr Almond: No.

  Ms Dalmeny: Maybe without the lumpy custard!

  Mr Almond: I would say let us get back to the notion that young people should be far more active than they are and let us get schools recognising that eating well is important for their health. We have lost both of those things.

  Mr Lincoln: This has been shown in the Ofsted reports and through the National Healthy Schools Standard where they have looked at health and whether that improves what might be seen as the bottom line in some schools, educational outcomes and there is a clear link. So the more activity the more benefits plus the fact, as I know from my own children, they sleep better every night as well.

  Mr Osborne: Could I come back to your point about this not being new. I agree that there has been a lot of common sense logic that the more active you are the more you attain. The difference is everyone is becoming increasingly evidence based. It is only now that this research is showing that more physical activity means better standards in schools and that is what is new and I think that is why this research is so important.

  Q419  Mr Burstow: All of that has been very helpful but I do not think it quite answered my question which was about out of school activity. A school may well have a very good mix of activity during the school day and thus meet your points and address the research findings that you have just told us about but be concerned that children also then have a large number of out of school activities on top of that. I know from my own experience that my son and many others who come from this particular school are quite tired by the end of the day and it is not just because they have had lots of cramming of academic stuff but they have also had good exercise during the day. Are you concerned about the issues which would suggest that we should extend the school day so as to facilitate the extra activity to meet the concerns that this Committee is currently investigating or should we really be saying that within the confines of the existing school day we should be trying to do more activity?

  Mr Osborne: I have just spoken on the theme of the journey to school and obviously there is a tremendous opportunity there to build in physical activity outside the school day.

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