Slim hope or fat chance, it's down to you

25th June 2004 at 01:00
One minute fat kids were not an issue, but the next minute childhood obesity is swinging from the chandeliers. Schools now have something else to worry about along with achievement, differentiation, discipline, inclusion, to wear uniform or not and individual learning plans.

Some people think that schools should take on a Big Brother role here, weighing pupils regularly and sending home the result, presumably in a sealed brown envelope, with instructions to put any little porkers on a diet. Other individuals would go further, arguing that social workers should intervene when obesity puts children's lives at risk - either by placing these children on a social services "at risk" register or even taking them into care.

Could all this vitriol just be a tad too far? Can we really squeeze everyone into a "one size fits all" standard box? What happens if you're obese and badly behaved? Imagine all the litigation cases when fat brats get their reports and their weight is highlighted as well as their behaviour. But, actually, I can't quite make up my mind if this is all obsessive judgmentalism or whether it is reasonable to ask schools to address the increasing girth of our young population.

My sister - a mother of four children aged five to 12 - says that she would have no problem consenting to her children being weighed at school, provided it was part of a whole health promotion package.

But herein lies the problem. The trend now is to have less and less in the way of active health promotion in schools. School nurses are often not qualified staff at all but kind-hearted souls with a certificate in first aid. Who has the expertise to manage the weight of the nation's children?

Even if you do crack that problem, what will you do with the parents who simply don't want to know that their offspring are tipping the scales in the wrong direction? The chances are that the whole family is on a diet of microwaveable meals high in salt, sugar and fat. It is cruel to allow children to become obese, and parents are to blame for their inept and slothful parenting. But quite how will such parents be persuaded to ditch the chip pan in favour of the wok?

Then, there is the irony of schools punting the virtues of healthy eating but simultaneously accruing vast profits from vending machines stuffed full of the very addictive garbage which is perpetuating the fat epidemic.

Some pupils are so accustomed to a diet of crisps and biscuits that they turn up their noses at fresh fruit and vegetables. Recent research in Moray into how primary 1 and 2 children reacted to the free fruit offered by the Scottish Executive found that 7 per cent of children refused the fruit in the first place, while almost one in five of them took only a token bite and then discarded the fruit.

This is not surprising, because the Scottish diet is notorious for its absence of raw ingredients. Hence some children have not acquired a taste for whole foods.

Numerous recent reports have highlighted the figures - shockingly, a fifth of Scotland's 12-year-olds are apparently obese, putting them at increased risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

These statistics are frightening, but they do not justify the state telling people what to eat and how much to exercise. Nor do they, on balance, give schools the right to interfere in the weight control of children.

Take other examples of parental inadequacies - the majority of children are not breast-fed despite the well attested medical benefits, and scores of children never experience the delights of being read a bedtime story.

People must remain free to make their own choices and, if they choose fatness for themselves and their children, then they must live with the consequences.

Otherwise, we're talking about the thin end of the wedge.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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