About 18 months ago one of the parents at Christ the Sower reported me to the local rag (MK Citizen) for “fat-shaming.” These things happen to heads all the time (a former colleague of mine in Bletchley has had a hilarious set-to with some parents over their parking habits, published in the same esteemed and highly-referenced journal).
A parent who was a serial complainer on other issues swore to me that it wasn’t him. In fact he had already written to me (in the manner of serial complainers) about the article I had published in the school newsletter, and I had gone so far as to issue an apology (in the following newsletter) for using somewhat intemperate language. I found out about it one afternoon when a journalist rang me up and said they were going to run this story, and could I put the opposite view. I said a lot of things to defend our position, and she included all of those in her article, apparently. It was then picked up by both national print and broadcast media as well as on social media (I had calls from Radio 5 Live and ITV’s Good Morning Britain). I had e-mails from colleagues all over Milton Keynes, one in Malaysia, having read the Telegraph online, and from several readers of the Daily Mail, which damaged my street-cred somewhat.
The central issue revolved around statistics released the previous year from the National Child Measurement Programme’s annual report that showed our children severely overweight, in spite of our best efforts. I had reported it to parents the previous year and there had been no reaction, but in the context of the number of children arriving at school by car from very close to the school, I addressed it again:
We need you to help us, please. For years, we have been putting ADULT CONVENIENCE above OUR CHILDREN’S HEALTH! The way I know that is by the chaos in the car park each morning and afternoon. If we valued our children’s health (and our own) I think we would walk, cycle or scoot to school each day rather than go by car. We’d take our time, talk and meet with other families as we walked or cycled to school, and above all, we’d seriously oxygenate our children so that their ability to learn would be massively enhanced. Older children living in Medbourne, Oakhill, Crownhill and Grange Farm would be trusted to walk to school and home by themselves more. Research published this week showed that PARENT CHOICE is really vital in helping children getting healthier, and that actually a lot of things that the school and government do have hardly any impact!! As a school, we think it is high time that we took this more seriously. The research now linking physical activity and learning is overwhelming. ….our children, overall, are fatter and more obese than other children in Milton Keynes and could really do with a lot more exercise. We know this because nurses come and weigh your children and measure their height in Reception and in Year 6, and we get the data! We do a lot in school, with 2 hours PE each week and at least 50 minutes play and break-time each day during which time most children play actively, and after Easter, we are employing [….] for another day a week to support this. But in walking to and from school, you can really help us. Many of you already cycle with your children or walk with them, and we are SO grateful. Some of you park a way away (Medbourne Pavilion is a good place!) then walk the last bit—a great idea? Thank you! But most parents are still bringing their children, even short distances, by car. The more cars we use, the more danger for your children—and others—in the car park. Also, the more road rage and frustration…and the worse examples we set our children. It’s not a great education to watch your parent mouthing off at another one over car parking practice!!! I KNOW some of you will take offence at me saying these things. That’s your choice. But I’ve not said anything untrue! We MUST do something! So we’ll put our heads together after half term and think of ways to help children get fitter not just in school, but before and after too.
It was the word “fatter” that got the serial complainer going, and led to him writing to me (again!). But it did not lead to the article in the MK Citizen. That happened after my apology and explanation three weeks later:
Following my article about children’s obesity and walking to school, one parent asked me to apologise for saying that “our children, overall, are fatter and more obese than other children in Milton Keynes and could really do with a lot more exercise” because the term “fatter” could be seen as offensive. I am very sorry that this hurt people and had no intention at all of causing offence by using the term. However, the issue itself is critical, we can’t ignore it, and I’d like to tell you exactly why we need to address it. When children come into reception, aged 4, the school nursing team weigh them and measure their height and calculate their BMI (body mass index). This helps them know whether the children are overweight or obese. Generally, at Christ the Sower, VERY FEW ARE. Combined data for 2013-2016 show just 15% of children are overweight or obese. This is much less than the average for England (22%) or Milton Keynes (23%). In fact, it is typical of children internationally (15%). Childhood obesity rates across the world are rising at an alarming rate, but our 4 yr-old children are at the international average.
Then, when they are 11, the school nurses measure them again. Internationally, children increase in obesity/overweight by this age, but in England, the increase is very large—34% of all children at age 11 are classified overweight/obese, compared with 22% just 7 years before. This figure (34%) is the same for Milton Keynes, but for our children in Year 6, measured in 2013-2016, the figure is 43%, 9% higher than the national average. That is a really significant difference. So whilst I did not mean to hurt anyone by using the term “fatter” let me quote to you the 2017 report from the National Child Measurement Programme: “The proportion of Year 6 children who were overweight or obese (43.1%) is higher in your school than in most other schools across England (34%)”
And that was it. The MK Citizen article appeared a week later. I never spoke to any other print or broadcast outlets, feeling very strongly that I should stay absolutely silent and wait for God’s deliverance on this, which came in due course through the massive support of parents, colleagues, governors and readers of the Daily Mail.
And in a pleasing report I have just read.
Today, the Times reports that nearly 40% of all primary school leavers will be obese within 5 years. This comes from Public Health England’s Health Profiles for 2019 (click on the children and young people section, chapter 4) published yesterday. The prediction is that the current 34.3% will rise by 2024 to 38.1% of school leavers.
That there are schools, such as Christ the Sower, whose children already exceed that (the data is calculated as a three year average so the 2018 data was not much prettier!) is a problem. Schools do more and more to enable their children to exercise. They spend more and more, through the Sports Premium, to resource the teaching of PE and sports, and whether you are a sporty person or not, it is easy now in most primary school settings to get active. It would be difficult to see how this could be improved, but the government will, I guess, keep thwacking schools about this because they are less of a moving target than parents, and they don’t have a vote as such. But the problem lies entirely at home, with patterns of transport, nutrition, eating together for meals and exercise almost completely disrupted by the devices we choose to entertain and inform us.
The problem is today worse amongst the most deprived parts of the population (41.4% of children have excess weight) and least serious in the least deprived populations (24.5%). This cannot be a school problem – these statistics reflect home habits: schools are a strongly moderating influence on obesity, and hardly stop talking about it.