Last reviewed 23 October 2018

By the time children leave Year 6, more than a third of them are overweight. It’s becoming a national crisis and one which many schools are doing their best to address. An Ofsted thematic review reports on inspectors’ findings and Suzanne O’Connell highlights the main messages.

Ofsted is in a good position to report on what is happening in schools. On occasion, it is asked to research a particular aspect of school life and to report back in the form of a thematic review. Such a report is Obesity, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in Primary Schools. Published in July 2018, it provides some insight into the ways in which schools are dealing with the obesity crisis among children.

It comes in the wake of the DfE’s document, Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action, which identifies a future role for Ofsted:

“Ofsted is developing a new inspection framework for September 2019. This will consider how schools build knowledge across the whole curriculum and how they support pupils’ personal development more broadly, including in relation to healthy behaviours (page 11).”

Inspectors visited 60 primary schools and conducted an online survey of Years 5 and 6 pupils and their parents. They received advice from a panel of experts and carried out a literature review.

What are schools doing?

The report focuses on school meals, the curriculum and physical activity. Many schools are doing their best, alongside all the other demands placed upon them, to find ways to help secure a healthy future for their pupils.

School meals

Although the report largely comes out in favour of the benefits of school meals, it suggests that packed lunches are not always as unhealthy as people think. Inspectors report that many packed lunches include a piece of fruit, a packet of crisps, a pot of yoghurt and a ham sandwich. School dinners include a pudding, which most children (93%) take advantage of and would not be classed as healthy either.

The review suggests that it is cost effective for schools to try and encourage as many pupils as possible to eat a school dinner and emphasises that Heads can have a role in increasing take-up.

Reasons parents gave for children not having school meals included:

  • dietary requirements, eg vegetarian

  • portions being too small

  • not enough time to eat

  • restrictive pay arrangements, eg having to pay weekly rather than monthly.

Inspectors are still unclear as to why there is a lower take-up in low-income areas compared to wealthier ones. One suggestion made by a catering company is that the presence of unfamiliar meals on the menu may have some influence.

Physical activity

69% of the schools visited have two or more hours of PE in the timetable. Many schools offer a whole range of sporting and physical activities to encourage their pupils to be active. Inspectors found that the average number offered was 18 with football and dance being at the top of the list.

The “daily mile” has become a popular way of ensuring that children get a regular bout of exercise and 13 schools in the survey included this in their timetable. These schools reported that the “the daily mile” was also good for social interaction and gave teachers opportunity to get involved and lead by example.

Ofsted indicates that some schools are using their sports premium money to buy in sports specialists to deliver classes as PPA cover. Inspectors consider that this is a waste of expertise which could be better used to train and develop teachers and improve their own knowledge of sports tuition.

The curriculum

It was recognised that the majority of schools include healthy eating as part of their curriculum. However, inspectors commented that schools do not include cooking sufficiently in the timetable. “One school brought in specialism by drawing on support from a local supermarket. It was still only around a quarter of schools, however, that reported that they gave children the opportunity to cook (page 5).”

There is no mention in the report of the impact of testing arrangements on the curriculum and difficulties with finding time to cover healthy eating and more physical activities. Many will see this as an omission and perhaps it would have been beneficial to include questions in the survey to cover this too.

Does it work?

The disappointing conclusion of the survey is that school level interventions to tackle obesity do not appear to be making much difference. Ofsted compared schools with similar catchments but that had low obesity and high obesity rates. They could find no indication of what works:

“We saw no pattern to suggest that any intervention was related to higher or lower obesity. This means that individual school-level actions like having a nominated lead for obesity or having an on-site kitchen, are not likely in themselves to make a significant difference to children’s weight. This was not a surprising finding, because we would not expect them to. Obesity is far, far more complex than that (page 4).”

Some organisations have suggested that the research is flawed. It is argued that the strategies that are being used now may take longer to have an impact and also that solely using weight as a measure is too simplistic. They consider that Ofsted is wrong to ignore the importance of having a “whole-school approach”.

More positively, the report does suggest schools’ interventions might be having an impact on children’s behaviour outside of school. Half of parents reported that lessons learnt in school were helping their children to make healthy choices when it came to eating and drinking. More than half of the pupils questioned said that they were doing more sport and exercise as a result.

The report’s advice to schools

The report takes the view that schools are too busily engaged with activities that are outside of their brief and which are having no noticeable impact. Instead, it recommends that schools should focus on the main job of teaching particular skills such as how to cook or how to dance. The report states: “In the shared effort to tackle obesity, schools should focus on those things they are best placed to do.”

The writers of the report consider that parents’ views are not taken into account sufficiently. They suggest that schools should make more of an effort to keep parents informed about what their children are actually eating and on their physical development such as agility, balance and co-ordination.

Pupils should be given more opportunity to request particular activities that they would like and schools should act on this. The report refers to dodgeball as one example of something that pupils had mentioned as a preference to inspectors.

The report recommends that schools should deliver a challenging and well-sequenced curriculum and that there should be plenty of opportunity during the school day for children to “get out of breath”. How schools might find the time for all this is not directly tackled.

At this stage, it is important that school leaders are aware of the direction that Ofsted is taking. Whether there is agreement with the content of the report or not it is advisable that schools:

  • review their approach to school dinners and consider whether more can be done to encourage take-up

  • take time to ask parents for their views on matters such as school meals and the activities offered by the school

  • try to ensure that information for parents is delivered in ways that are accessible to them

  • reconsider their use of sports premium money

  • review the place of healthy eating in the curriculum, particularly in relation to the opportunities there are for children to cook or prepare meals.

What the vast majority would agree with Ofsted about is that obesity is not schools’ responsibility alone. There are many factors that have an impact on children’s weight and school meals and the curriculum are only part of the puzzle.