Schools cannot provide a ‘silver bullet’ to beat obesity, claims Ofsted

A new Ofsted report on childhood obesity states that schools cannot take overall responsibility for children’s health; the Soil Association has responded by calling the research ‘flawed’

Ofsted has released a report – entitled Obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in primary schools – which states that, while schools have an important role to play in battling childhood obesity, their influence cannot be seen as the sole answer.

While outlining how schools encourage healthy lifestyles and exercise as part of a rich, broad curriculum, Ofsted cautions that expecting too much of schools will not solve the problem and, in fact, risks further increasing teacher workload. Supporting the government’s recently published obesity strategy, which acknowledges that childhood obesity is is a ‘complex societal issue, requiring solutions from many different players’.

However, according to the report – which studied 60 primary schools across the UK to discover the influence they had over their pupils’ obesity levels – school must focus on what they do best, which is education. Further, based on analysis of the school-level interventions taking place in the study cases, there was no identifiable 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,’ the report says.

The Ofsted report also noted the amount of effort being channelled into activities designed to influence parents, adding that this is being done ‘without any evidence that they either have an impact or are what parents want’.

 

As such, the report suggests that education leaders should focus on the improvement of existing programmes, such as PE and food technology, that may sculpt pupils’ relationships with food and exercise.

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector for Ofsted, confirmed that schools cannot provide a “silver bullet” for tackling the issue.

‘Childhood obesity is one of the pressing issues of our generation,’ the report says.

‘By the start of primary school, almost a quarter of children in England are overweight or obese.

‘The contribution of schools is extremely important. But it must be about doing what schools do best: education. We should not imagine that schools alone can have a direct and measurable impact on children’s weight. There are too many factors beyond the school gate that make this impossible for them to control.’

The report has garnered a distinctly unimpressed response from the Soil Association, which says that it has repeatedly advised that the focus of the report should be on how schools show leadership through whole-school approach. Instead, Ofsted has reduced the issue to the classroom, it claims.

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Rob Percival, of the Soil Association, said:

“Ofsted’s review of obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in schools has got it completely wrong. It was conducted on the basis of a flawed methodology and an inadequate understanding of behaviour change. In publishing this report, Ofsted has flagrantly disregarded the advice of its own expert advisory panel and risks undermining the vital efforts that schools are making to support children to eat well at a time when the government is taking concerted action to tackle childhood obesity. Her Majesty’s chief inspector should be placed in ‘special measures’.

“Of overriding concern is Ofsted’s disregard for the advice of its own expert advisory panel, which consistently advised that the focus of the review should be on the extent to which schools show leadership through a ‘whole school approach’ that supports pupils to adopt healthy behaviours.

“Ofsted appears to be actively discouraging a whole school approach to achieve healthy behaviour change and is urging schools instead to reduce their focus to classroom knowledge and skills alone. Behaviour change science shows that knowledge alone is not a sufficient driver for healthy behaviour. By contrast, a ‘whole school approach’ that makes schools ‘healthy zones’ has been robustly evaluated by the University of the West of England and shown to have a significant impact on healthy eating behaviours.

“Pupils in schools adopting such an approach via the Food for Life School Award are twice as likely to eat their five-a-day compared to children in matched comparison schools. Ofsted’s disregard for this evidence is absurd.

“The methodology adopted in this review is deeply flawed, and Ofsted knows it, because its own expert advisory panel told them as much. Despite the review purportedly focussing on ‘obesity, healthy eating and physical activity’, healthy eating outcomes such as fruit and vegetable consumption are explicitly disregarded – the only valid outcome is assumed to be a reduction in obesity levels.

“Public Health England advised Ofsted in clear terms that the methodology and sampling approach were not appropriate or adequate to support the inferences made on the contribution of schools’ activities to obesity levels. It is outrageous that Ofsted has published such a transparently biased report.

“Ofsted can and should play a positive role in supporting healthy eating in schools, including by promoting excellence in school leadership in relation to school food. The first chapter of the Obesity Plan committed Ofsted to taking account of the proposed healthy rating scheme for primary schools. We welcome this commitment and look forward to further clarification of Ofsted’s role in this regard.”

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