Justin Tomlinson is co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, and is MP for North Swindon.
Wimbledon, the Ashes, the Olympic & Paralympic Games…and now, as much as ever, the World Cup. We love sport in the UK.
So how on earth are 77 per cent of boys and 80 per cent of girls in Primary School not meeting the minimum national recommended level of activity? There is a serious disconnect between our love of sport and children picking up the bat and ball.
As an 80’s child, fuelled by artificial colourings and flavourings (it wasn’t all good in those days!), it was a given that, after school and throughout the holidays, we would be outside attempting to recreate our sporting heroes (jumpers for goalposts), or cycling for miles and miles. We’d head off all day before returning sunburnt at tea-time. We were active, we weren’t overweight – and we loved every minute.
Times have changed, and I understand why. Parents are more anxious, as they understandably want their children within eyesight. Meanwhile, new high density housing developments all too often lack open useable space, with ‘no ball games’ signs too quickly deployed. There simply is less opportunity for kids to be freely active in a safe environment. And, with decreasing rates of activity, childhood obesity has become a major public health crisis.
So I cheered when the Government announced ambitious plans to halve childhood obesity by 2030 – first, through the Childhood Obesity Strategy released in January 2017, and now through last weeks refreshed second phase of plans. Let’s be glass-half-full: there have been some sensible announcements:
- Empowering consumers to make informed diet choices through clearer food labelling, including in cafes, restaurants and take-aways.
- Potentially extending the sugar tax (which has already significantly reduced sugar content in many popular drinks) to incentivise manufacturers to reformulate products, to further reduce sugar and calories in the products they sell.
- Investing £1.6m in 2018/19 to support cycling & walking to school and promoting the Daily Mile.
But, like my plans to become a professional footballer, most of the announcements fall seriously short. Physical activity is only mentioned twice. Instead, there are too many easy, knee-jerk political gestures including ‘banning TV advertising of junk food’ (forgetting that most children have stopped watching the adverts). Unfortunately, Ministers, who are desperate to show willing, are opting for these easier measures rather than addressing the real issue: that our children aren’t doing enough activity.
Rightly, there has been an increase in the School Sport Premium; but there has been a failure to evaluate whether it is being used effectively and if it’s leading to tangible results – in other words, is it helping to boost activity? As the co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, I am working with the Sport & Recreation Alliance to investigate how money for school sport is actually being spent. If it isn’t increasing activity levels – which I suspect it isn’t – then we have a problem.
If we are going to make a difference, we need to be radical. We need Health, Education and DCMS Ministers to get together and unlock safe environments for children to be active.
I have been very vocal about a potential solution. We need to allocate funds from the Sports Premium and the SDIL (Sugar Tax) to open up school sports facilities and playing fields, after school and in the summer holidays, to parents, clubs, sports camps and voluntary organisations who want to put on constructive activities for youngsters. We need to empower local communities to provide active opportunities in a safe environment – free of the false economy of exorbitant hire fees.
That way you get kids doing extra activity, outside of the normal (and already squeezed) school day, whilst also providing busy parents with extra, much-needed childcare options. This is a real win, win.
Ultimately, Childhood Obesity will not be halved unless we do three things:
- Act quickly to provide real opportunities for children to be active outside of the normal school day. Unlocking facilities and helping those groups to provide activities is essential.
- Make sure that PE in schools is effective in ensuring that every child is getting the minimum amount of exercise. I have an inspiring PE teacher in my constituency who runs lunchtime and after-school sports clubs. His passion has encouraged youngsters of all abilities to get active and enjoy doing so.
- Invest in breakfast clubs and provide basic food lessons. Whilst I have focused on the importance of physical activity, diet is also crucial. We must teach kids the basics; why fruit and veg is good for us, and why too much sugar & fat isn’t. We can’t aim to shield them from every single bad food out there, nor should we – everybody likes the occasional treat. But we allow them to make informed decision about what they eat, and how often we should eat certain foods. Nutrition and diet goes hand in hand with the world of sport.
So the Government needs to stop faffing around with restricting advertising, and pretending to children that junk food doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to get more kids active – both inside and outside of school – and we need to educate kids about the food basics so that they can make informed decisions.
To see schools sports facilities behind lock and key, whilst local children don’t have somewhere safe to run around and play is shameful. Unlocking opportunities to be active should be the priority.