Physical Education - State primaries must get moving to beat obesity

Link up with private schools for inspiration, headteacher urges

Irena Barker

Primary schools in the state sector are failing to offer children the amount of sport needed to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic and should "take a leaf" out of the book of private schools by doing more, according to a leading headteacher.

Private preparatory schools - typically for children aged 8 to 13 - keep their students slim by offering extensive sporting opportunities and sitting down for cooked lunches, said Eddy Newton, new chair of the UK's Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), which represents about 600 institutions.

Mr Newton, speaking ahead of the IAPS annual conference next week, said that state schools spent too much time worrying about test results, which had little meaning if children grew up to be obese and suffer from poor health.

"With the rise in obesity and the health problems it causes, there's a real danger that children will grow up to die before their parents," he told TES. "It's a real shame for children if they have become overweight at 6, 7 or 8."

He added: "I don't want to sound smug, but it is a huge shame that state primary schools cannot do more sport. It would be great if they could take a leaf out of prep schools' book."

Mr Newton, who is headmaster of Chafyn Grove, a mixed 3-13 day and boarding school in Salisbury, said that school lunches should not just be a "refuelling stop" but instead a social occasion that offered the opportunity to learn how to "look someone in the eye and have a conversation".

Mr Newton quoted government statistics showing that nearly 20 per cent of UK 10-year-olds were obese. By comparison, a straw poll he carried out in 12 prep schools revealed a much lower rate of obesity at just 5 per cent. Students at his prep school, he said, were doing four hours of timetabled sport a week by the age of 10, with some adding another four hours to that in their spare time.

But the headteacher was keen to stress that the sporting emphasis in preps was not about private schools having more money than state schools. Many, he said, did not make large enough surpluses to build the impressive facilities often associated with the independent sector.

"It is about attitude as well," he said. "In my first prep school, we walked a mile to play rugby on a pitch with no marked lines. The walk was not seen as an obstacle."

Sport and school food are both high on the agenda in the UK. Lord Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Olympics organising committee, said in the summer that he was "shocked" by how little training primary teachers had in delivering physical education lessons.

Meanwhile, the restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent have called for a ban on school packed lunches in a report commissioned by the government on improving school food.

Mr Newton, who is a Classics and sport specialist, said that prep schools were keen to help state primaries fight obesity by helping to increase their sports provision, and were willing to lend facilities, set up clubs and offer specialist training to teachers.

Figures from the Independent Schools Council annual census for 2012 indicated that 82 per cent of private schools were in a sporting partnership with a state school. "The last thing I want is to tell primary schools what to do," Mr Newton said.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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