Obesity – what can primary schools do?

Written by: Tiffnie Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Recent figures show a sharp rise in obesity among year 6 pupils. While this is a challenge for all of society, what steps can primary schools take to tackle childhood obesity? Tiffnie Harris advises

Back in November, the NHS released some shocking statistics on obesity among children in reception and year 6 (NHS, 2021).

They revealed that the prevalence of obesity in reception had increased from 9.9% in 2019/20 to 14.4% in 2020/21, and from 21% to 25.5% in year 6 over the same period. It hardly needs saying that the fact that a quarter of 10 and 11-year-olds are categorised as being obese represents a significant health problem.

Of course, there are lots of factors involved in this issue – many of which lie outside the school gate.

As pointed out in an Ofsted report and blog in 2018 – which I will come back to shortly – families, government, industry and other parts of the public sector all have a role to play in making food and drink healthier and in supporting children to make better choices.

But this article, of course, is about what step schools can take within this wider context.

The impact

But first of all, it is worth looking at the impact of this issue. Public Health England guidance (PHE, 2021) describes childhood obesity as a “significant health inequality” with higher rates among children in disadvantaged areas.

Obese people, it says, are more likely to suffer from physical health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions or mental health conditions.

“Children living with obesity can find that their weight affects their prospects in life, self-esteem and underlying mental health, with poor health behaviours persisting into adulthood, leading to lifelong negative effects on health.”

The economic costs are also great with the NHS spending an estimated £6.1bn on overweight and obesity-related ill health in 2014 to 2015.

What can be done?

A useful starting point is the aforementioned 2018 Ofsted report – Obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in primary schools – looking into what actions primary schools are taking to reducing childhood obesity, which is also summarised in a blog by Ofsted’s Chris Jones (2018).

Unsurprisingly, it finds that getting the curriculum right “is the best possible way for schools to have the most impact”. Specifically, it suggests:

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


On the subject of physical exercise, it is worth noting that Public Health England tells us that the UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that all children and young people aged five to 18 should engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity for an average of 60 minutes per day across the week.

Of course, schools alone cannot deliver access to 60 minutes of sport and physical activity per-day. The government’s Schools sport and activity action plan (2019), however, recommends that 30 minutes of this is delivered during the school day.

The PE and Sport Premium is aimed at helping primary schools to achieve this commitment. Government guidance (DfE, 2014) says it should be used to secure improvements across five key indicators:

  • Engagement of all pupils in regular physical activity.
  • The profile of PE and sport is raised across the school as a tool for whole-school improvement.
  • Increased confidence, knowledge and skills of all staff in teaching PE and sport.
  • Broader experience of a range of sports and physical activities offered to all pupils.
  • Increased participation in competitive sport.


The Ofsted blog also has something to say about working with parents. Again unsurprisingly, many parents want to see more cooking and PE on the curriculum. The blog tells us: “What they really want is readily accessible information about what their child is doing at school: what they are actually eating and what they are learning about. Parents could then follow this up at home.”

And it adds that in addition to timetabled PE, the extra-curricular offer is a good way to give pupils the opportunity to learn new skills and be active.

School meals

As schools will already be well aware, the School Food Standards set out the requirements for school lunches. Most useful is the detailed practical guide and checklist for headteachers (DfE, 2019). Broadly, government guidance (DfE, 2015) tells us that school meals must provide:

  • High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish.
  • Fruit and vegetables.
  • Bread, other cereals and potatoes.

And there must not be:

  • Drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate or sweets in school meals and vending machines.
  • More than two portions of deep-fried, battered or breaded food a week.

The Ofsted report notes that inspectors found no reason to believe that schools are not following the School Food Standards. But adds: “The best school leaders were going much further and were taking a personal interest in the quality of the meals they were providing.”

Interestingly, it goes on to say that they saw no strong evidence to suggest that packed lunches are playing a significant role in the obesity crisis. Pupils told inspectors that their packed lunch was most likely to comprise a piece of fruit, a packet of crisps, a pot of yoghurt, and a ham sandwich.

The report notes that it might be worth trying to substitute the crisps for something healthier. But, echoing the earlier point about factors outside the school gate, it concludes: “The choices leading to obesity are more likely to be happening outside of school hours.”

And finally...

Of course, it needs to be said that some of the points mentioned in respect of the Ofsted report are affected by the reality of the constraints under which schools work. Those realities include the fact that the curriculum is already crowded with various other demands and expectations, and that pressure on funding and resources is intense.

In an ideal world it would be much more straightforward to deliver Ofsted’s recommendations but that is not the world in which schools exist. There is also then a responsibility on the government to do much more in terms of ensuring that schools have sufficient resources on this and so many other matters.

And while we are on the subject there is also a strong argument for the government looking again at school meal provision in general – such as whether funding and the entitlement to free school meals should be extended. We know that around one third of children in the UK live in poverty (DWP, 2022) with almost one million of these living in “food insecure” households (Headteacher Update, 2022). Children are unlikely to be in a fit state to learn if their diet is poor.

That is surely an unacceptable state of affairs in a relatively wealthy 21st country. Only the government can solve this issue – rather than leaving schools to pick up the pieces.

Tiffnie Harris is the primary and data specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.