Huge improvements in schools relating to health and healthy eating have not made a “blind bit of difference” to childhood obesity, a senior Ofsted official has said.
Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director of education, said that while schools had done “the right things” – such as removing vending machines and overhauling lunch menus – children had “actually got fatter” in recent years.
He made the point to show that childhood obesity was “not something schools can sort out on their own”, and to argue that people cannot expect schools “to solve all of society’s ills”.
Mr Harford made the comments at the CurriculumEd conference in Lichfield on Saturday.
“The reality is that schools have done amazing things to move away from the kind of things we used to do in schools 20 years ago in terms of health and healthy eating,” he said.
He referred to past practices in schools which would now be viewed as unacceptable, such as using vending machines as a “supplement to funding” and letting children make unhealthy lunch choices.
“In the last school I taught at in ironically the sports centre we had a coke machine and a chocolate machine, because we made money out of the kids in having them,” he said.
“If that sounds terrible, then that’s what happened. And most secondary schools in the country had those as a supplement to funding. You don’t see those things when you go into schools now.
“You equally don’t see the other thing back in those days, which was the full choice menu at lunch time; open choice cafeteria, the arrays of salads and vegetables, ah and chips every day! And chocolate eclairs.
“The number of times I stood and watched kids go through that full choice system and come away with a plate of chips and chocolate éclair as their meal for the day, was incredible. You can’t do that in the vast majority of schools now, you couldn’t choose those options.”
Mr Harford said schools had moved to “a much better place”, where they are “linking their PSHE and their PE curricular, and their food technology curriculum”.
However, he said research by Ofsted undertaken last year found these changes had "made not a blind bit of difference to kids’ obesity in this country, they’ve actually got fatter over that period”.
Ofsted’s research of 60 primary schools found no pattern to suggest that school-level interventions alone – such as having a kitchen on site or a member of staff leading on obesity – were linked with higher or lower levels of obesity. The report suggested there were "too many factors beyond the school gate" for these interventions to have a "direct and measurable" impact on children's weight.
Mr Harford said: “So what do we do, blame schools for not having an impact? No.”
He also highlighted knife crime as an issue where schools are blamed for factors outside their control.
“What lots of people were lining up to do was to say ‘schools need to sort [knife crime] out then, we need to hold schools to account for that, and that will sort it out’.
“[Ofsted chief inspector] Amanda [Spielman] was really, really clear on this. It is not something schools can sort out on their own, just as obesity is not something schools can sort out on their own.
“Nobody is saying that all those things I talked about in terms of changing choice around cafeteria, healthy eating, exercise, getting kids out of puff regularly through the curriculum, nobody is saying they’re not the right things to do.
“Of course they are the right things to do, but don’t expect them to solve all of society’s ills.”