25/02/15 – Fitness in schoolchildren

Speakers: Dr Gavin Sandercock: Reader in Clinical Physiology and Head of Centre for Sports Science,  University of Essex; Rob Newsome OBE, Head of Dyffryn Taf School

25th February 2015 – meeting notes

All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood

Chair: Baroness Benjamin

Baroness Benjamin welcomed attendees; in particular, the school students from Dyffryn Taf School.

The Baroness then spoke about the most recent report produced by the Group, ‘The Early Years’ and how much coverage and discussion it had generated. In particular, the CBI seemed to be under a misapprehension about breast-feeding at work. Baroness Benjamin will invite the CBI CEO to attend a Group meeting to discuss concerns; also to open dialogue about the developmental benefits of breast-feeding to young children.

Helen Clark also spoke briefly about the report; thanking the sponsors; the University of Northampton (represented at the meeting by Sharon Smith and Dr Eunice Lumsden). Media coverage had been good and extensive; including:  a page two headline in ‘The  Daily Telegraph’, page 7 headline in ‘The Daily Mail’, Royal College of Midwives website , ‘Nursing Times’  and ‘The Metro’ had  commissioned a poll on the breast-feeding at work issue. Our line had won the poll by quite a margin.  There was much productive wider discussion on social media.

Phil Royal advised that printed copies of the report would be made available and that a launch event, (provisionally booked in the Lords Attlee Room on 18 March), would require financial sponsorship.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, Reader in Clinical Physiology and Cardiology, Reader and Head of Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at University of Essex

He said  that the majority of meetings are conducted from a sedentary position and gave his presentation standing up.

Dr Sandercock advocated systematic measurement of activity outcomes, applying various benchmarks of fitness including estimates of power, strength, running performance and physical flexibility.

48% of year 11 children tested (in his programme) were clinically unfit, whilst 6% were statistically obese. Those unfit could not run for longer than 2-3 minutes or a 13 and a half minute mile. Children were bigger but weaker rather than stronger.  Half of the 10 year olds tested could not hold their own body weight (a survival skill). Children could perform fewer sit-ups and press-ups than their counterparts ten years previously and were less flexible.

Only 2 hours of the school week were allocated for PE. The British Medical Journal is uninterested in the research findings, considering them to relate to ‘fitness’ rather than ‘health’.  In fact ‘fitness’ is the best predictor of mortality. Fit people live longer, are happier, eat more and enjoy life. Fitness should be measured within an underpinning framework and  the good work taking place  in schools similarly underpinned with measurement criteria  to give a properly representative  picture of the health and fitness of British children.

Rob Newsome OBE: Head Teacher, Dyffryn Taf School

Mr Newsome described a fitness in education programme called “School Gym”. In the approach to the 2010 General Election, there was political consensus around a commitment to school sports partnerships. However the Olympic legacy had not been fulfilled. PE as a subject had not developed advantageously, despite public funding.

Since 1944 the provision of PE in schools has been statutory and now merits evaluation.  Is school PE too sports focused? According to the World Health Organisation, physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor for mortality and is increasing. Roughly a third of schools have a significant numbers of pupils on roll presenting with obesity and consequent lack of fitness and ill health.

PE predominantly sports-led is problematic. Between 11-16 children experience physical changes and alterations to co-ordination. They require a personalised activity programme.

The physical lifestyles of young people are a public health issue.  The education system has potential to empower behaviour change in pupils and also their families and communities.  The acquisition of good habits in childhood can extend throughout the life course and school can introduce good practice.  PE should be a measurement tool for health and wellbeing with potential to provide fundamental movement skills and sports experience for young people.

The School Gym environment defines the principles of physical literacy as stimulation and inspiration rather than ‘skills drills’. School PE should be universally accessible, a mentally stimulating environment that is interactive and socially responsive.

The environment must generate creativity, resilience and engagement. It should focus on developing base fitness, support students’ self-awareness, self-confidence and engagement in their own physical development. At the moment PE offers no differentiation unlike the fully differentiated School Gym with its sense of personalised progress.

In practice, it has attracted more students to the school and has more than paid for itself.  A good use of technology is also essential.  The school is currently developing online streaming videos for student self-assessment.  There is also a personalised dashboard measuring sleep, hydration and fatigue, a mind gym and a ‘rate my plate’ appliance.

What is needed is an ‘activity skills set’ for young people and goals to  encourage all young people to become physically active, achieve  international recommendations for daily accumulated activity and a recognition that  fitness and a balanced diet is important for everybody.

Baroness Benjamin asked the school students to tell the meeting what participation in the programme had meant for them. Their observations were as follows:

Student1:  improved self-esteem, she goes to the gym regularly, enjoys training and encourages girlfriends to accompany her to the gym.

Student2:  The gym was enjoyable to visit with friends during lunch break, instead of hanging around doing nothing. He experienced increased self-esteem.

Student 3:   His rugby skills had blossomed and he felt more confident. He also noted an improvement in literacy and numeracy skills.

Questions and comments

Behaviours are formed in the early years, how do you track those?

A: Our system has the development of children monitored very closely with monitoring and measurement carried out.

Baroness Benjamin: What should DfEE ask Ofsted for, what list should we take to ministers?

A: Ask teachers in secondary school, what do you need children to be able to do by the time they come to you? There is a need for physical literacy.

Parenting classes, children’s centres, health visitors all should have this on their agenda; there should be education on a healthy lifestyle.

This should be included in the education provided for early years professionals and health visitors.

Baroness Benjamin: What are the 10 key points to take to ministers?

Rob agreed to send a list of policy ideas to Baroness Benjamin.

Baroness Benjamin asked for a further 10 points to take to the minister of education, to be able to make changes to the environment, in a holistic way as an essential part of all else that is currently done.


The Policy Recommendations report produced by Fitmedia in response to Baroness Benjamin’s request above is available here.