Tackling childhood obesity – the view from Ofsted

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A recent Ofsted review into schools’ role in tackling the child obesity crisis has led to a confusing report that criticises and dismisses our efforts, while offering schools few useful recommendations, says Suzanne O’Connell

Ofsted’s thematic review and subsequent report – Obesity, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in Primary Schools (July 2018) – was undertaken as as result of the government’s action plan Childhood Obesity: A plan for action, itself published in 2016.

Ofsted’s report recognises the threat that childhood obesity poses to the health of the nation and acknowledges the complex range of factors that cause it.
Its findings are based upon a review that included an online survey and observations in 60 primary schools. The expressed intention of the research was to develop a better understanding of what primary schools’ contribution to reducing child obesity in England might be.

No impact

This thematic review begins by acknowledging that there appears to be no clear link between schools’ activities and a reduction in obesity. In spite of schools’ best efforts, it states “we saw no pattern to suggest that any intervention was related to higher or lower obesity”.

The report continues: “This means that individual school-level actions, like having a nominated lead for obesity or having an on-site kitchen, are not likely in themselves to make a significant difference to children’s weight. This was not a surprising finding, because we would not expect them to. Obesity is far, far more complex than that.”

The report reminds schools that what they do best is imparting knowledge and developing skills. As such, it recommends – quite sensibly – that schools should focus on:

  • Plan a challenging and well-sequenced curriculum, including learning about the body, healthy eating, and cooking.
  • Provide ample opportunity for children to take physical exercise during the school day – with lots of opportunities to “get out of breath”.
  • Teach particular skills like how to cook and how to dance.
  • Update parents on their children’s physical development, such as agility, balance and coordination.

However, frustratingly, the report then goes on to present surprisingly little detail, discussion or examples around these recommendations, while at the same time criticising school across a number of fronts.

The curriculum

The report recognises that the majority of schools include healthy eating as part of their curriculum. Eighty-nine per cent of the schools observed had some timetabled curriculum time for this. There were three main ways in which schools organised their curriculum for healthy eating and physical activity:

  • Discrete subject teaching – healthy eating delivered through separate PSHE lessons, design technology and science.
  • Linking across themes – where subjects may be distinct but associations are made between learning in different subjects.
  • Cross-curricular or thematic teaching – where content is organised by topic rather than subject.

However, the warning is that schools should not be distracted from their core purpose of education. A core purpose that the inspectors criticise schools for not fulfilling sufficiently. They suggest that:

  • Only a quarter of schools in the survey reported giving children the opportunity to cook, in spite of this being a requirement.
  • There was lack of clarity about curriculum intention, implementation or impact.

One campaign group has criticised this report for making no reference to a whole-school approach. The School Food Matters campaign, for example, commented: “We had hoped to find in the report a celebration of the schools that prioritise and establish a good food culture by taking a whole-school approach.

In fact the term ‘whole-school approach’ does not appear anywhere in the report despite this approach being central to the School Food Plan.”

Physical exercise

The report states that 69 per cent of the schools visited had two or more hours of PE in the timetable each week. However, the opportunity to find out exactly what schools were offering as part of the PE curriculum was lost as they were not asked to differentiate between activities as part of the curriculum and those in after-school clubs.

Many schools offered a whole range of sporting and physical activities to encourage their pupils to be active. Inspectors found that the average number offered was 18 with football and dance being at the top of the list. The report also refers to the “daily mile”, which has become a common feature in many primary schools.

The report is critical of schools using their PE and Sport Premium funding for PPA cover and for using lack of money as an excuse. It claims that tight funding need not be a barrier, giving the example of dodgeball which only needs some space and foam balls – this apparently is an activity that pupils would like more of.

School meal confusion

Some of the messages in the report surrounding school meals and packed lunches are a little confusing. On the one hand the report does seem to support the view that encouraging children to stay for school dinners is preferable to them having packed lunches. At the same time there is the suggestion that perhaps packed lunches aren’t as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Many, it is claimed include a reasonable balance of food such as a piece of fruit, a yoghurt and a ham sandwich. Although some sandwich boxes included cakes and chocolate bars it is pointed out that most children having a school dinner have a pudding as well.

Parental involvement

The report is critical of the efforts schools are making to deliver events around healthy eating and activities designed to influence parents. It suggests that rather than inviting parents to events that they can’t attend, schools should provide more information about what their child is doing and eating.

It states: “Less effort spent inviting working parents into the school and more effort providing accessible information about school lunches, for example, would be a good place to start.”

It goes on to suggest that schools do not listen to their parents sufficiently: “Many schools seemed to hold a view that parents were difficult or uncooperative. Yet our evidence suggested something else: that schools had not made enough effort to listen to where parents were coming from.”

In spite of this, the report does provide a promising indication that parents at least feel that schools are helping to influence their children’s choices. Fifty-one per cent of parents indicated that their child’s school had encouraged their child to drink more water, 47 per cent to eat more fruit and vegetables, and 42 per cent that school had increased their child’s willingness to try different foods.

Stick to education

Ofsted is clear that schools should stick to what they’re best at and not try to solve the obesity crisis on their own. The report states: “The contribution of schools is extremely important. But it must be about doing what schools do best: education. We should not imagine that schools alone can have a direct and measurable impact on children’s weight. There are too many factors beyond the school gate that make this impossible for them to control.”

Few schools would disagree that this is a campaign that must be maintained across different services and sources of influence. However, they must have been startled to see their efforts reduced almost to a waste of time with the message “stick to what you’re good at”.

At times this is a confusing report and it sheds little light on the subject. Perhaps Ofsted would also be better focusing on their core purpose and leave the research and evaluation for others to do.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Obesity, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in Primary Schools, Ofsted, July 2018: http://bit.ly/2ys5n31
  • Childhood Obesity: A plan for action, HM government, August 2016 (last updated January 2017): http://bit.ly/2PISoAL


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