Schools are being urged to open up their playing fields and sports facilities throughout summer in a bid to tackle Britain’s obesity epidemic.
Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and former England Rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio are among those calling for an expansion of schemes to get children moving.
Ukactive, the not-for-profit body chaired by Dame Tanni, says almost 40 per cent of community sport facilities in England are locked behind school gates, in playing fields, halls and tennis courts, which cannot be reached during holidays.
Its research shows that even before the pandemic, around three quarters of fitness gains made by children during the academic year were wiped out by summer holidays, with children increasingly hunched over their gadgets.
Latest data shows that since then, activity levels have slumped further, with almost one in three children doing less than half an hour’s exercise daily, during the first year of lockdowns, and one in three children obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school.
Writing for The Telegraph, Dame Tanni called for a mass expansion of schemes which make use of sports facilities inside school grounds.
It comes after The Telegraph launched a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from repeated lockdowns.
Ukactive and sportswear company Nike will run such initiatives in ten schools in the London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, with aims to scale up the “Open Doors” programme to more than 100 schools in coming years.
Campaign for Children: Obesity
However, Dame Tanni urged ministers to take urgent steps for a mass expansion of such schemes, to help get children moving, and repair the damage the pandemic has caused to children’s physical and mental ill-health.
Writing with John McAvoy, a former armed robber, who became an iron man triathlete, she said: “The future of our children’s health and wellbeing hangs in the balance,” urging the Prime Minister to put children at the heart of the levelling up agenda.
“While plans to improve children’s nutrition are welcome, impact will be limited unless we see a holistic strategy which addresses physical activity and mental factors as well as diet.”
The pair said that using school facilities as activity hubs “unlocks opportunities”, especially for the most vulnerable.
“Our ambition is for the Government to help scale this model nationwide,” they said, saying “equal access to school holiday programmes should be as common as going to school is during term time.”
It is time to put children first and move from rhetoric to reality
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson
Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport
The future of our children’s health and wellbeing hangs in the balance, writes Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, chair of ukactive, Paralympic champion, and Peer in the House of Lords, and John McAvoy, Nike athlete and Iron Man
The Prime Minister has rightfully spoken about the levelling up agenda, but his Government must now put our children’s mental, social and physical health at the heart of this vision, and provide tangible plans that take this from rhetoric to reality.
While plans to improve children’s nutrition are welcome, impact will be limited unless we see a holistic strategy which addresses physical activity and mental factors as well as diet.
We have asked enormous amounts of our youngest citizens during this pandemic; sacrifices to their education, friendships, and physical and mental health – sacrifices often made to benefit the adults and systems around them. Crucially, it is the most disadvantaged children and young people who have been impacted hardest.
Good and bad food
Before the pandemic, children’s activity levels were shamefully low, with Sport England highlighting in 2019 that just 47 per cent of children in England were achieving an average of 60 minutes of physical activity each day, with stubborn inequalities blighting any attempts at progress.
Pandemic has exacerbated the problems
The pandemic has exacerbated this; now that figure is less than 45 per cent, with almost one in three children doing less than half an hour’s activity daily.
With the number of children eligible for free school meals rising to over 1.7 million, activity levels plummeting, and mental health issues increasing, it is imperative the Government acts now to place the health and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of its long-term recovery plans.
The success of the England men’s football team in the Euros has inspired children to want to be like their heroes, and the sight of Team GB athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics will excite communities, but when the TV coverage ends, what legacy is left for our children?
As the Government faces a crossroads in its pandemic roadmap, it also faces a crossroads in committing to a positive future for our children. When it comes to the health of our youngest generation, it is time for rhetoric to translate into reality.
We, the authors of this rallying cry, have been on very different paths in life, yet have both experienced a journey full of struggle and adversity, pain and exclusion.
One is a story of young redemption, turning from a life of crime to breaking indoor rowing records, becoming an Iron Man, Nike athlete, author and speaker. The other is a story of physical and mental adversity from a young age, challenging stereotypes around disability and gender, becoming one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians, before moving into a career to influence national change, in the House of Lords.
Credit: News Scans
In the latest chapter, our paths have met and we now share something else – an unwavering drive to support the vulnerable children and young people in our society. We want to build a society whereby every child, no matter their background, is supported to achieve their potential.
The challenge for vulnerable children is magnified during the school holidays. Without the safety net of school, children are often at risk of long periods of inactivity, lack of food, and without access to positive role models.
Research by the ukactive research institute shows that children suffer a loss in fitness levels of up to 74 per cent over the summer holidays, with the fitness of those from low-income families falling 18 times faster than their more affluent peers.
Obesity admissions over the last 5 years
There has been progress since we visited Number 10 Downing Street together in 2019 to discuss action required to support children during holiday periods. A national expansion to the Department for Education-funded Holiday Activity and Food scheme is a step forward; so too is the investment in the summer schools programme – but, with both schemes backed by the Government only for 2021, we need a longer-term plan.
Now is the time for a bold commitment from the Government that places children’s health at its core. That’s why we are so passionate about the Open Doors programme, a vision by ukactive and Nike, and importantly a collaboration of like-minded partners and grassroots champions, all committed to helping young people shape a better future.
Open Doors focuses on engaging young people at times when they often have no access to role models, enriching environments and safe spaces.
By using under-utilised school facilities as activity hubs, it unlocks opportunities and creates positive experiences during out-of-school times, ensuring that when school ends, engagement for vulnerable young people does not.
This summer we are working with schools and partners from across the sport and physical activity sector, spanning London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, to reshape the holidays by providing safe, positive and engaging places to be active, socialise and play.
Our ambition is for the Government to help scale this model nationwide. We want to create change, not just for the children that walk through the doors, but to the system itself. Equal access to school holiday programmes should be as common as going to school is during term time.
We have a moral obligation to look after the most vulnerable in society and it is vital that our recovery efforts to build back better embrace an unwavering focus on children’s health. It is time to put children first.