Children living in poverty are becoming “malnourished” and “unfit” through a lack of food and physical activity, the subject association for PE teachers has warned.
Sue Wilkinson, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education (AfPE), said teachers have reported children not wanting to get changed for PE lessons because they are ashamed of being so underweight.
In an interview with Tes, Ms Wilkinson said that with concerns about childhood obesity dominating news coverage, there was a danger of ignoring pupils who “are not looking very healthy but from the other end – they’re malnourished, unfit and unwell”.
“We’re supporting [PE teachers] whose kids wouldn’t change and they thought it was about kit, but they were actually hiding the fact that they were so skinny,” she said.
Ms Wilkinson explained that these children were not simply “thin”, but “underweight and malnourished” through a combination of lack of food and “being inactive” at home.
The news came as the country’s biggest network of foodbanks appealed for donations to deal with an expected increase in demand for emergency supplies for pupils suffering holiday hunger this summer.
Pupils 'inactive at home'
Ms Wilkinson said poor parents could not afford to pay for their children to use facilities like leisure centres. “They don’t have the resources to go to things that you have to pay for in the community.”
Ms Wilkinson said she had raised her concerns in ministerial meetings with the government.
Teachers have a duty of care to their pupils, which means they must report concerns if they think a child is at risk. However, Ms Wilkinson said there were things that schools could do to help underweight pupils do more exercise.
She suggested that schools could buy second-hand bikes, scooters and skipping ropes, which they could make available for children to use outside of school for free.
“Pupils take books home. Can we not have an equipment box with skipping ropes that a child can take home and skip at the weekend in the park? Or lend them a ball?”
However, she said teachers shouldn’t single out underweight pupils because it could make them feel more embarrassed and ashamed. “Look at solutions that don’t actually single out those pupils. Say to the whole school, ‘We’ve got equipment here if you’d like to use it outside of school, but you have to tell us why.'"
She said that when an underweight pupil asked to use the equipment, “I would quietly say to this person, ‘Do you get much activity?’
“Then I think that’s a conversation where the school has to talk to the parents first.”
Ms Wilkinson said that PE teachers were ideally placed to support children in these situations. “Teachers of PE are teachers young people will confide in, because they see them in such a different, less formalised context,” she said. “I’d tell my PE teacher anything.”
This is an edited article from the 3 August edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here