It's not up to teachers to tell parents their child is overweight

Teachers already have enough to do, we don't need to add 'send warning letters about a child's weight' to the list

Fiona Tapp

New phonics resources to help primary teachers incorporate healthy-eating messages into English and maths lessons

Since moving to North America I’ve realised just how overworked UK teachers and school administrators are compared to their transatlantic contemporaries.

My teacher friends back home in Blighty are exhausted. It seems that there’s not a week that doesn’t go by when they’re not handed duties that, actually, shouldn’t really be school issues at all.

British teachers are expected to be curriculum experts, assessment wizards, social workers, nurses, nutritionists, and lead a whole host of extracurricular activities while triple marking students work to appease overzealous Ofsted inspectors.

A friend of mine living in an East London borough received a letter home from her son's school claiming that by an arbitrary BMI measurement the boy is considered overweight. This child is active, happy, healthy, tall and fit and most certainly does not have a weight problem.

But even if he did, why is this an issue a teacher needs to address?

There’s no doubt that developed countries have a problem with girth, with research finding that the four in 10 young people in Britain are medically obese and will live shorter lives than their parents.

There does need to be a greater focus on health and fitness so that our youngest citizens can expect to live long and healthy lives, but relying only on a BMI measurement is unwise. Especially when it’s schools and teachers who are doing so. BMI or body mass index measures the height and weight of a person resulting in a score which can be interpreted as “underweight”, at “normal weight”, “overweight” or “obese.”

However, this calculation does not take into account different body types, distribution of fat or racial or gender differences in body composition. Many doctors and scientists completely reject it as a measure of health and describe it as “inaccurate and misleading”.

Sending out a letter claiming a child is overweight doesn’t address any of the reasons why that child may be overweight or offer any solutions to the problem. It also ignores the fact that children may well be deemed to be a “normal” weight by BMI but could still have a very poor diet leading to other health problems.

Even if we agree on a more accurate measurement process to determine that parents need to better address their child’s health and nutrition needs, why does the official bureaucratic notice of fatness fall to already overworked educators?

Being a teacher in Britain is stressful, a study last year found that an alarming 75 per cent of teachers feel overwhelmed by their job and their growing list of responsibilities. Many of the additional tasks teachers find themselves doing are a blatant waste of their time, qualifications and talent.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic, teachers work hard too but the idea of a "nanny" state and government interference in everyday citizens' lives are found to be abhorrent. This means that even when individual school boards or states try to implement practices such as those awful “fat letters” they are met with resistance and often litigation.

Although 19 states have begun to send home letters alerting parents to their child's high BMI score, Massachusetts lawmakers have introduced legislation to make the gathering of students' BMI information illegal.

The letters that have been mailed out in the United States, however, are sent by nutritionists hired by the school, not farmed out to the already groaning weight of paperwork on teachers' desks.

And herein lies the difference between the two countries, although both nations are concerned about the rising rate of obesity in their young, only one thinks that teachers should be the ones to deal with the problem.

Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and a former primary school teacher of 13 years living in Canada.

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Fiona Tapp

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