Promoting children’s welfare: foci on obesity and knives

17 Aug

Schools and academies are responsible for promoting children’s welfare and protecting them from harm.  They do so very well – indeed so much so that Children’s Social Services are relieved when they (the schools/academies) shut down for the summer recess. It is then that the pressure of constant referrals that schools/academies make to Social Workers of children being physically, sexually and emotionally abused or neglected reduces significantly.

Two other areas to which governors, headteachers and staff members should give some attention are children’s love of fast foods, especially their penchant for fast foods – a key cause of obesity – and the increasing incidence of knife crime.

I        Obesity

Public Health England (PHE) stated that a quarter of 2-to-10-year olds, a third of 11-to-15-year-olds and two-thirds of adults are overweight if not obese.  PHE forecast that 70% of the nation would be overweight if not obese by 2034.  Obesity rates are highest in the most deprived 10% of the population, about twice that of the least deprived 10%.   A higher percentage of ethnic minority groups of children – particularly from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds – and children with learning difficulties are more likely to be obese than other groups.

Overweight or obese children suffer in multiple ways.   They are bullied at school which causes low self-esteem and mental ill-health.  They tend to have high cholesterol levels, are likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and have bone, joint and breathing problems leading to their being absent for periods of learning with illnesses of one kind or another.

Obese children tend to graduate to obese adults.  Obese adults have a penchant for being morbid and depressed. They comfort-eat and swell further developing disabilities.  Premature mortality, stemming from type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertension, cancer, heart disease and/or stroke, is the result.

Many children have poor role models in families.  This is unsurprising given that 50% of women of childbearing age in England are overweight or obese.  Also, there is a close correlation between maternal obesity and the weight of babies born to mothers.   Overweight babies born to overweight mothers tend to become overweight and obese children and overweight adults.    It’s unhelpful when children are subjected to poor diets and too little physical activity.

Add to that the amount of sugar consumed by children.  The National Diet and Nutrition Survey revealed that sugary drinks account for 30% of 4-to-10-year-olds daily consumption. Processed foods, which constitute so much of what youngsters eat these days, contains saturated fats which are harmful to them.

Thanks to social media (with children hooked to computer screen and glued to their mobile phones) and poor diet, youngsters find physical activity anathema.  In England, only 21% of boys and 16% of girls between the ages of 5 and 15 engage in the recommended levels of physical activity.   This spirals downwards as they grow older.

II       What can schools/academies do to tackle a weighty problem?

So what can schools and academies do to tackle what appears to be an intractable problem?

The School of Public Health at Harvard University suggests: “Serving healthy choices during lunchtimes, limiting availability and marketing of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks and making water available throughout the day are some of the ways that schools can help prevent obesity.”

This is easier said than done.  Healthy foods are more expensive than fast foods. Also, persuading children to accept healthier options and counteracting the numerous ways that they are tempted by unhealthy foods outside of the normal working day – including endless television programmes about cooking and baking – are challenging.

Notwithstanding, schools and academies can take measures to deal with promoting healthy living.  Some are as follows.

  • Ensure that school/academy meals have healthy options and take measures to curtail fast food vendors from selling their wares during break and after-school times just over the school/academy boundaries.
  • Incorporate into normal lessons information on healthy eating and physical education.
  • Encourage children to participate as widely as possible in sport outside of normal working hours and set up equipment in the playground to promote as wide a range of sports as possible.
  • Ban unhealthy snacks from the school/academy premises and permit children to bring only fruit and raw vegetables (like carrots) onto the school/academy premises.
  • Educate the parents of children about healthy eating.
  • Finally, but perhaps the most important, staff members must model by eating healthily and in moderation and slimming down if overweight (despite the stresses of teaching). There is no point in telling children: “Do what I say and let me do what I want.” Staff members must walk their talk.    Those who are overweight should take their cue from the Japanese – especially women.  During meal-times, they stop eating just before they are satisfied and sated.

Amsterdam, which has the highest rate of obesity in the Netherlands (20% of children there are overweight) has enforced the following measures some of which involves schools.

  • Children are banned from bringing juice into school and there are more water fountains in the city.
  • Children are taught about healthy ethnic dishes and how to cook pizzas with a broccoli base, kebabs with lean chicken (rather than pork) and honey and dates instead of sugar.
  • The city has decided not to have fast food companies sponsor state events.
  • Pregnant mothers are counselled about healthy diets and health visitors pay close attention to gastronomy during the first 1,000 days of children’s lives (that’s slightly under three years).
  • Members of every family are encouraged to dine together.
  • Sport centre membership and activities are subsidised for low-income families.

Because of the above measures, the number of overweight and obese children in Amsterdam dropped by 12% from 2012 to 2015.

Meanwhile, back on these emerald isles many children gorge on food while for many others there is little or no food at home because of food poverty.  A recent survey carried out by The Times Educational Supplement and the Association of Colleges (AoC) revealed that nine in 10 colleges are feeding learners who struggle to feed themselves.

In fact, a report published in summer 2018 mentioned that 5% of people aged 15+ struggle to get enough food. Lindsay Boswell, the Chief Executive of Fairshare, a charity which redistributes surplus food, said: “In 12 months, we’ve seen the number of groups we work with increase by 44%, and we supplied enough food to make up nearly 29 million meals a year.

Altogether, 13% of colleges have food banks on the campuses and 86% offer support to students who cannot feed themselves.   Some colleges provide free toast and cereal at breakfast times and others offer students a small sum (£4 a day per student) to spend in the canteen, vouchers for the local food banks or even trips to the local supermarkets with members of staff.

So, while many of the country’s young people swell and grow in substance, a matching number does not have enough to eat. Both ends of the spectrum present concerns which we need to address.

III     Knife Crime

Young people – especially in London – have been caught in a vice-like grip that gets them implicated in knife crime.   So worried are they that they will be “bumped off” in the streets in gang fights, that they carry knives to defend themselves.  In extremis, they use these weapons to defend themselves and fatally injure other young people. A few end up in prison.

They are caught up in a vicious circle: they carry knives to defend themselves against other young people who carry knives because they also wish to defend themselves.  When they use them, it is often with fatal consequences.

More than 30,000 children aged between 10 and 15 now say that they are in gangs, according to research.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, said that criminals are preying on teenagers.   She said that 70,000 youths up to the age of 25 are now in gangs.   She added that the rise in school exclusions was partly to blame for increasing youth crime. Pupil referral units (PRUs) had become the recruiting ground for criminals.  Children in cities are targeted as much as those in rural areas.  “Parents have told me that police and teachers don’t believe what they are telling them about gangs — it’s still not seen as a countrywide threat,” she said.

Ofsted is concerned. It has launched a survey of school leaders in London to ask how they are keeping children safe and how pupils are being educated about the dangers of carrying offensive weapons.

Mike Sheridan, Ofsted’s regional director for London, assured headteachers that their responses would not be used to form judgements on individual schools. If they were fearful, school/academy leaders can respond to the questionnaire anonymously.

Meanwhile, more than 25% of London secondary schools/academies have taken up the offer of free knife detecting “wands”.  The knife detectors can be used at individual school/academy events. High-risk schools/academies may choose to use them regularly to screen students entering the premises. Headteachers will decide how they are deployed.

Schools can request a knife wand through their safer schools’ officer or by emailing https://schoolsbulletin.haringey.gov.uk/files/2017/11/MOPAC-and-MPS-letter-to-schools-re-knife-wands.pdf.

Assuring words have come from Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who said that while the rise of knife crime had created “a sense of urgency and alarm” schools/academies remained “oases of safety compared to the streets outside them”.

He added: “I would encourage schools and colleges to seriously consider this offer, not only to give reassurance to parents and teachers but also to act as a deterrent. If there was anyone thinking of taking a knife into a school, this would be a way of reinforcing how completely unacceptable that would be – even to contemplate it.”

Sadly, a quarter of shops are selling knives to underage pupils, according to new figures published in mid-May 2018.   Shop workers failed to check the age of mystery shoppers buying knives in 26% of 2,357 test sales in 2017. Among shops classed as homeware or DIY stores, where 672 tests were carried out, 41% sold the blades to mystery shoppers without checking identification.  This also happened in 21% of supermarkets where 1,685 test purchases were carried out.

The Times reporters, Rachel Sylvester, Alice Thompson and Fiona Hamilton, wrote on 25 June 2018 that 50 young people were stabbed to death in gang-related attacks in London so far this year – 15 more than died in all four terrorist attacks in Britain in 2017.

The number of children aged between 10 and 15 being treated for stab wounds in England had increased by 69% since 2013. Children as young as 10 years of age are being recruited to take drugs from big cities to rural areas as part of the network of “county lines”. They are trapped in gangs. Indeed, one ten-year-old boy was recently found in the park of a provincial town trying to hang himself with his school tie because he feared for his life.

The study by Ms Longfield’s office found that 73,000 young people, 32,500 of whom were aged from 10 to 15 years old, confessed that they were members of gang.  The Metropolitan Police gang matrix database holds fewer than 4,000 names but figures from the Children’s Commissioner are thought to be much higher because they relate to self-identification.  Longfield’s report, Vulnerability Study, highlighted the harm done to children exposed to gangs and violence. More than half of the nearly 420,000 annual crimes against children aged 10-15 are now related to violence, it said.

The good news is that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, announced in late June 2018 new controls on people buying knives (online) and acid.

IV     Closing thoughts

Schools and academies have the responsibility for keeping children healthy and safe from harm.  This has implications for promoting their physical and mental health – so that they encourage children to develop the Goldilocks matrix of being not too fat and not too thin and anorexic.   As they control the contracts awarded to lunch-time caterers, they can ensure that only healthy options are offered to children.  Many schools control what children bring into schools/academies.  They ban sugary drinks, crisps, sweets and chocolates.   Ensuring that staff members also “walk the talk” on healthy eating is as, if not more, important.

Knives are (generally) banned from schools and academies.  There have been numerous examples of pupils being permanently excluded for bringing knives into schools/academies.

What is a more intractable problem, however, is getting the message across to parents and carers so that healthy eating extends to after working hours and youngsters keep away from gangs where knife crime is endemic.   When alerted to these dangers, many parents/carers pay heed. Some, however, are so busy promoting their careers or simply scratching around to earn a living, that the safety messages fall on deaf ears.

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