According to research conducted by healthcare provider, Bupa, currently three in 10 children in the UK aged between two and 15 are overweight. A shocking statistic, yet even more outrageous is the news that 74 children under 11 have been taken away from their parents by the authorities for being severely overweight.
Childhood obesity is a growing concern in the UK, and although it is undeniably parents’ responsibility to help prevent their children from becoming another statistic, with children spending the majority of their waking hours in school, educators must also take steps to help ensure their students are practising a healthier lifestyle.
This, however, is easier said than done. PE has been part of the national curriculum since its introduction in 1988, yet getting students to be more involved in sports at school is still a real challenge.
However, at All Saints’ Secondary School in Dagenham, there has been a significant increase in students’ uptake of physical activities, with 95 per cent of key stage 3 pupils attending at least one extra-curricular club.
Making sport something which is available to students across the school community is fundamental to our school ethos, and we are working hard to ensure that regardless of their age or physical ability, students are able and willing to participate. By offering a broad and balanced extra-curricular programme, we aim to find a sport that every student can enjoy and will want to play, from football and netball to rowing and futsal.
Here are some of my tips that other teachers or schools may find useful when trying to engage their students in PE:
Involvement is the name of the game. By making sure everybody, irrespective of ability, is able to get involved, you are generating an environment which fosters physical activity and inclusivity.
As a part of our endeavour to be as all-inclusive as possible, we have been running an SEN club that has had the opportunity to go to the Dagenham YMCA to try Boccia (a precision ball sport, related to bowls), boxing, and to use the fitness suite.
The SEN club has also received football coaching with Euro Dagenham and Panathalon, where three pupils were selected to go through to the next round of the competition representing Barking and Dagenham.
The feedback we received from this event has been excellent, both from the pupils and organisers, however it is also great to have the school making links with the local community.
Offering a range of sport to students is crucial to achieving the highest possible levels of student participation.
Try to offer both recreational and competitive clubs, so for those students who don’t want to compete against other schools or their peers there is still an opportunity for them to get active. This is essential for schools looking to raise the profile of sport in their school.
A variety of sporting roles
It is also important to encourage pupils to experience as many different roles as possible, such as umpiring and coaching. By using the roles of coach, organiser or official, every student gets to participate, without having to be a player every time. The variety helps keep the students willing to engage.
Of course, student engagement is not the only factor of a successful physical education department; having enthusiastic staff is key. One member of our department started a Friday Night Futsal Club (a variation on five-a-side football, usually played indoors) which has been taken up with huge interest from our students. He also arranged an inter-form competition for year 7, which has been brilliant for team-building.
But it is not only PE staff who can get involved with extra-curricular programmes, one of our RE teachers is currently running the rugby club.
If all staff are willing to “muck in”, it helps to build a school community which has team-work and supportiveness at its core – characteristics essential for every school.
Enjoyment is key
While having high levels of involvement is promising, schools should also be aiming for students to enjoy sport and exercise rather than seeing it as a chore.
According to our student council, PE is one of the most popular subjects on the school curriculum. It is incredibly important to make sure that children are enjoying physical education, and do not simply see it as something they have to do because a teacher says so.
Rather than simply offering sport during PE lessons, we have extra-curricular clubs run after-school, before school and during lunch breaks.
Having clubs before school and over lunch breaks is great for children whose parents do not want them to have to walk home in the dark during the winter months.
It also means that children who want to participate in more than one club a day can do so without their timetables conflicting.
According to the Mental Health and Physical Activity Journal, there is evidence to suggest that increasing physical activity improves academic achievement in children. With this in mind, if schools can blend physical activity into the school day as naturally as possible, children who would perhaps not ordinarily get much physical exercise can do so, with the added benefit of potentially improving academically.
Something which has also certainly had an impact on the take-up of sport at All Saints has been the competitions. We have had the year 11 rugby team reach the quarter final of the National Rugby League, the year 11 football team reach the final of the Borough London Cup, and our year 9 girls won the Barking and Dagenham round of the basketball competition.
This element of competitive success drives many students to achieve. By developing a culture of sport within your school community, you ensure that come each September you are introducing new year 7 students into a school that nurtures sporting ambition.
These students will then have the success stories from older students to aspire to, breeding a school ethos in which students are invigorated by the prospect of sporting achievement.
Not just boys, not just sport
It is also important to strike an even balance between male and female involvement in school sports, as sporting prowess is not something which belongs to one gender over the other.
While it may be a prevailing stereotype that young girls do not wish to be as involved in sport as their male counterparts, with growing concerns over adolescent girls’ interpretation of what is “healthy” and attractive in their eyes, we recognise that girls in particular need to be nurtured in an environment which appreciates fitness over slenderness.
The term “overweight” is one which is continually being misinterpreted by adolescents, so it is a good idea for schools to teach their students both the value of a healthy body and a healthy body image.
As media consumers, we (particularly women) are constantly being bombarded with superficial and unrealistic images of physical ideals. As such, it is essential for schools to ensure that exercise is seen as a means of getting healthy, not skinny.
We are less active, and have a greater access to foods with high fat, sugar and salt content than ever before. This combination is providing young people with a paradoxical lifestyle of wanting to be slimmer while actually being more likely to become overweight.
Unless we teach children to make the right choices, like playing football outside rather than playing XBox, or choosing apples over chocolate bars, these children will feel more and more uncomfortable in their own skin as they put on weight.
A change of attitude
As many students have very busy lives, with coursework pressures, after-school jobs and general teenage drama, it is healthy for them to find a stress-relieving outlet through sport.
Opting out simply should not be an option; the social interaction coupled with the mood-boosting endorphins released when you exercise means every student should want to get involved – but this is not always the case.
The NHS recommends that young people get 60 minutes of physical activity per day and by changing the attitudes of children so that they see exercise as a fundamental part of day-to-day life, you are cultivating their future lifestyle into one which will make them healthier and happier.
Our lives have become increasingly sedentary over the years, and so by incorporating more sport into students’ routine at school, we should be able to help them to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Schools are arguably the next largest influence on children after their parents, so it is imperative for us as educators to acknowledge our responsibility to nurture enthusiasm in our students for sport and physical education from an early age.
By ensuring that a wide variety of activities are available for students of all abilities, children can grow to see sport and exercise as a natural part of their daily life, perpetuating better fitness levels and a healthier lifestyle for the next generation.
Daisy Hamilton is head of PE at All Saints Secondary School in Dagenham.