One fifth of four- to five-year-old children in England are overweight or obese, rising to one third by age ten to 11 years. This stark increase during the primary school years points to the potential contribution of primary schools in reversing this trend.

Schools can play a part in obesity prevention in several ways, for example through teaching about healthy eating in the curriculum, ensuring healthy school meals, providing high-quality physical education and encouraging active playtimes or extra-curricular sport. In addition, schools’ sustained contact with families makes them a possible setting for working with parents.

The main priority of any school is the academic education of children, and schools face tremendous pressure to meet educational attainment targets. Yet common sense (and the evidence) dictates that health and education go hand-in-hand and that healthy children who are well-nourished and have time to be active will be more able to concentrate and learn. A key challenge for today’s schools is ensuring that health is not squeezed out of the ‘crowded curriculum’.

Consistent messages are vital in promoting healthy lifestyles to children. Schools that teach about healthy eating in the curriculum but then hand out sweets as rewards for good behaviour are sending out contradictory messages about food and a healthy diet. The development of robust policies for food and physical activity is a good way for schools to promote consistent messages. Equally, yet perhaps more challenging, there needs to be consistency between school and home. Healthy eating is not something that children can just learn at school; constant reinforcement and role-modelling is required.

Most people would agree that parents have the biggest responsibility for preventing obesity in their children, yet parents face a number of obstacles to leading healthier lifestyles, such as the high cost and limited availability of healthy foods and activity opportunities, and a lack of time or skills to prepare healthy meals. Particularly in disadvantaged areas, schools often act as a ‘backstop’ when parents appear unable to fulfil their responsibilities, by, for example, providing breakfast for pupils. Many schools have realised that in order to improve the lifestyles of the children, it is vital to work with, support and educate parents.

Although primary schools are considered to be ideally placed to offer support to parents, there are barriers. These include a lack of expertise or willingness among school staff to tackle this complex and sensitive issue, alongside a lack of time, space and resources. Additionally, many schools find it difficult to engage with parents, especially those most in need of support.

Currently, there are limitations to how much schools can do to prevent obesity, and they cannot be left to do this on their own. Expert support, guidance and resources are required, particularly in terms of working with parents. Furthermore, through a more flexible curriculum, backed by legislative and regulatory support, schools need to be given permission to dedicate more time to healthy eating and physical activity if they feel that this would benefit children’s health and education.

Joanne Clarke
Research Associate, Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Birmingham