Schools are losing the waistline war

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Healthy eating campaigns in schools are failing to make a difference and mostly amount to "piety", the president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association will today (Friday) tell his annual conference in Peebles.

Scathing remarks by Alan McKenzie, principal teacher of history at Greenock Academy, are underlined by this week's startling findings from a West Lothian secondary where virtually none of the first-year intake is above average fitness.

Mr McKenzie says that young Scots are now the third fattest in Europe but that school-based interventions have yet to touch the problem. Ministers are backing a pound;56 million nutritional strategy over three years, including free fruit for pupils in early primary, but the SSTA is demanding the introduction of free school meals to end the "free market approach" to young people's eating.

It condemns the presence of vending machines that raise thousands of pounds for school funds which are claimed to be negating any positive message about health. "In my own school, I cannot believe what young people eat and it's appalling that they have totally unrestricted access to vending machines," Mr McKenzie says.

The union has been campaigning on diet and health for the past three years and its concerns are affirmed by shock results from Bathgate Academy in West Lothian, which has launched a whole-school approach to positive living. As part of a benchmarking exercise, it tested the health, fitness and attitudes of S1 pupils. Physical tests included flexibility, aerobic fitness and body mass index, which measures fatness.

Joe Boyd, Bathgate's headteacher, says the results were alarming. "What percentage of kids do you think were above or well above average fitness?"

Mr Boyd asks. "The answer is none. Only a few had even average levels of fitness, while the majority were fair, poor or very poor.

"We looked at the results from another school in the Borders with a very different catchment area, for comparison. Their results were rather better but still very bad by European standards."

Mr Boyd accepts that healthy eating campaigns work for a time - "then everybody goes back to chips, biscuits and hamburgers". That reality has forced the school into a major rethink.

Roslyn Fraser, principal teacher of social subjects, who organised the school's health promotion month in March, said: "If all you do is tell people they have to stop doing things, you will never get anywhere. You have to be positive and the message is simple: do something, get active, eat well."

That message was repeated last weekend as more than 300 home economics teachers met in Dundee. Sedentary lifestyles and high fat foods will make it the norm for adults to be overweight within six years, according to Dr Alex Johnstone of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen.

Efforts should be targeted at prevention strategies, Dr Johnstone said. But a dearth of home economics teachers may dent efforts to counter rising obesity in young people. Teacher training places are unfilled for next session.

CUPBOARD IS BARE 6; Leader 20

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