Putting children’s health needs first

Children's health

The comment that a week is a long time in politics is commonly attributed to former prime minister Harold Wilson. Yet even the worst crises of the 60s and 70s moved at a glacial pace compared to the events of the last few days and weeks. At the time of writing, the British government has just ditched its entire economic strategy. Grand plans have been torn up, commitments scaled back or cancelled, promises unmade. Spending cuts are soon to be announced. As ever with cutbacks and ‘efficiencies’, long-term priorities are sacrificed on the altar of immediate needs. There is widespread concern about the likely impact on children’s health and wellbeing.

In our blog Unimaginative nanny-state rhetoric we discussed the possibility that the new administration of Liz Truss was potentially going to ditch lots of previously announced measures on health for political reasons – in line with the view that it is not the proper role of government to ‘meddle’ in people’s lives.

Then, at the end of September, the Guardian reported that Thérèse Coffey, the health secretary and deputy prime minister, was planning to scrap a long-promised white paper on health inequalities. Whether true or not, it followed an earlier decision to review all existing and planned measures to tackle the obesity crisis, such as banning buy-one-get-one-free offers and adverts for junk food being shown on TV before 9pm.

In her recent speech to the Conservative Party conference Liz Truss said:

I’m not going to tell you what to do, or what to think or how to live your life. I’m not interested in how many two-for-one offers you buy at the supermarket, how you spend your spare time, or in virtue signalling.

Fast-forward a few days and the pressure is primarily economic, the urgent need to reduce government spending. But there are no easy and painless savings to be made – especially when it comes to children’s health and wellbeing.

On 11 October the chef, restaurateur, author and food campaigner Jamie Oliver made a powerful intervention on the Radio 4 Today programme, arguing that there needs to be a significant expansion in the number of children eligible for free school meals, perhaps as many as 800,000. Under the current rules, children of parents who are on universal credit but have an annual income of more than £7,400 are unlikely to receive free school meals.

The organisation Chefs in Schools has published the results of a survey of primary teachers. It found that:

  • 83% of teachers said children were coming to school hungry because their parents couldn’t afford enough food
  • 79% saw children bring packed lunches with insufficient amounts of food
  • 23% said children were skipping lunch entirely due to poverty
  • 53% said schools were subsidising the cost of feeding children

Whatever our views on politics and economics, we can surely all agree that no child should be going hungry. Ensuring that children have enough to eat and are able to choose from healthy options is a clear and immediate priority.

But the long-term challenge is also clear: improving the health of the nation. The evidence is stacking up that we are failing in this, potentially leading to a massive public health crisis in the future. For example, the latest Active Lives survey from Sport England suggested that more than 12 million adults are currently inactive and that the overall figures “hide stark inequalities”. We need to do much more to ensure that people are eating healthily and living active lives.

Long-term challenges need long-term thinking. It is no longer enough just to carry on more or less as before, resulting in the same outcomes as before. Life-Based Learning is about reimagining education so that we focus on the massive life challenges we face. Tackling obesity – and promoting physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.

Education is important so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. It also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we educate our children and young people. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.

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The image at the head of this article comes from the BBC website.

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