Good physical health is an entitlement for all children and young people, argues new report

15 Dec 2021

The Government's strategy for children's physical health, which has a 'crude fixation' on 'weight management', is criticised in a new report co-chaired by a University of Winchester expert in physical education.

The report, 'Physical Health', is a comprehensive study of children's physical health during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Commissioned by the Children's Alliance, it features the work of 37 nationally-renowned specialists in children's health, including Dr Vicky Randall, Senior Fellow in the University of Winchester's Institute of Education, who worked alongside lead author Helen Clark as co-chair of the report.

Dr Randall said: "For far too long now the area of children's physical health has been preoccupied, almost exclusively, on weight management and addressing rising levels of obesity. The reality: not only have we failed to make any headway in these areas, we have done so at the expense of other equally pressing health agendas.

"This much-needed report calls for action and stresses that now, more than ever, significant changes are needed to ensure that a healthy life, from the earliest stage of life, is not just for the lucky few."

The report shows that some groups of children and young people begin life hampered by disadvantage due to their family grouping, geographical, cultural or socioeconomic circumstances. Proposals to tackle this include:

  • A pre-conception health strategy to be fully integrated into primary healthcare (including practitioner initial and ongoing training) and raised in routine discussions with pregnant women during visits to a range of clinicians such as GPs, pharmacists, nurses, dietitians and sexual health services. The report recommends that pre-conception health be a statutory national school curriculum requirement
  • A 'family first' - as opposed to 'children's diet' - approach to be advocated by health and childcare professionals
  • Re-positioning strategy to promote and encourage lifelong physical activity so that it is not presented solely/predominantly through a medical or 'deficit' lens
  • A 'gendered all policy areas' approach to physical activity to be deployed including gender analysis and public reporting required of how budgetary allocations of public money and national lottery funding affect physical activity opportunities for girls, boys, women and men; all media to proactively increase coverage of women's sport; providing girls with role models and the incorporation of equitable learning experiences accommodating the values, motivation and aspirations of all girls into programmes designed to develop physical literacy and fundamental movement skills of young people
  • Regular measurement of food insecurity; research and funding into good models of school holidays provision. More data to be provided on the dietary health challenges that have manifested recently for British families experiencing food insecurity
  • Review and re-set the benefits system, enabling swift and appropriate responses to food insecurity
  • Place race alongside poverty in discussions about inequality and disparity
  • Equip local government agencies to identify and intervene where necessary in settings where children have suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of any sort; involving the voluntary and community sector in provision of safe, supportive environments for children and young people
  • Launch a National Play Strategy for England, with play included in Ofsted Inspection
  • Generate national and local government cross-departmental policy to address children's health: a 'Health in All Policies' approach.

Lead author Helen Clark added: "It is the season of goodwill, but as this report demonstrates, in some parts of England, a BAME girl born into a poor family is facing a future with the health odds stacked against her.

"We know that a healthy physical environment coupled with positive healthy behaviours that are established from birth can mean a blueprint for lifelong good health.

"The Government now has a unique opportunity to build a healthier course for our future adult generation who will inherit the post-pandemic world - and that's the best present for every child this Christmas - and every Christmas to come."

The report has led Baroness Frances D'Souza, Honorary President of the Children's Alliance, to call for the appointment of a new Cabinet Minister for Children.

"Without effective co-ordinated measures led by Government, we run the risk that the next generation of UK adults will be the least healthy in living memory," she said.

"The authors maintain that good physical health is an entitlement for all children and young people. A Cabinet Minister for Children would make that a focus in all Government Departments."

The report is available online at this link.

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