Ofsted: When it comes to obesity, schools can only do so much

By Emma Ing, Ofsted Regional Director for the East Midlands

I know it is curious, but I loved my primary school lunch. Mince and mash, yum, prunes and custard, yum and rice pudding – delish! At my village school we children used to set the table with stripy seersucker tablecloths, and metal jugs of water. If I remember rightly, we sat in mixed age groups with a teacher at the table. It was a long time ago!

School dinners went through a bit of a dip, but thankfully, the quality of food in schools has improved recently. Nowadays primary schools do a lot of work to promote healthy eating and exercise. That was one of the findings of our recent report, “Obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in primary schools”.

As Ofsted’s Regional Director for the East Midlands, I often hear calls for schools to do this, that and the other to tackle society’s ills. But the fact is, schools can only do so much. I believe that they have to focus on their core purpose – educating children. Of course, that includes teaching them about healthy eating and physical fitness, but I am doubtful about how much further they can intervene.

There is no doubt that childhood obesity is a serious public health challenge. But it is a complex issue and there is no simple solution. Parents, government and industry all have a role to play in addressing it. As do schools – but they should not be expected to go further than educating children about healthy lifestyles.

Your child’s primary school should focus on providing a broad and rich curriculum that includes learning about the body in PE and science. And they should teach particular skills, like how to cook and dance (but not at the same time!). These are the things that schools are best placed to do.

A school should also update you on your child’s physical development, such as their agility, balance and coordination. But Ofsted is not in the business of checking that schools have been weighing their pupils or measuring their waistlines. And we are not, and never will be, canteen critics.

What we do check is that schools are encouraging healthy lifestyles and promoting the benefits of exercise. And for the most part, they are. That’s what inspectors found when they visited the Danesholme Junior Academy in Corby in May. They heard from pupils about how science lessons were helping them learn how to stay healthy. Pupils are also encouraged to be active. Every class has a fitness-tracker watch that pupils take turns to during breaks and lunchtime, steadily building up the number of steps the class accumulates during the course of the week. A weekly prize is awarded to the class that records the highest number of steps.

That’s just one example of the kind of thing we’ll be hoping to see this autumn term. Of course there are many other ways that schools can promote health and fitness, as part of a broad and rich curriculum. What our inspectors will want to establish is whether the school is providing a broad range of experiences and opportunities for children to learn. Whether children are motivated by, and interested in, the activities on offer. And whether the quality of teaching is good. In short, inspectors will focus on how the school is achieving its core purpose.

If Ofsted drops by your child’s school then please make your opinion known. We want to hear from you

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