We must put pupils' health first

4th June 2004 at 01:00
If last week's health select committee's report fails to spur ministers into action to tackle child obesity, it is unlikely anything ever will. A litany of damning statistics - half of all children will be obese by 2020 if current trends continue - are backed up by hardheaded analysis and the gut-wrenching example of children who are "choking on their own fat".

For too long successive education ministers have treated physical activity as if it were a worthy nuisance that takes up curriculum time which could be better used to raise academic standards.

The unacceptable decision (in MPs' words and ours) to back voucher schemes that encouraged children to buy Walkers Crisps and Cadbury chocolate, only adds to the impression that pupils' physical well-being and diet were low down the Government's list of priorities.

Ministers should make clear they will oppose future voucher schemes and do whatever is necessary to ensure that all children meet their modest target of two hours of high-quality physical activity at school.

They should also accept the select committee's recommendation and tighten the rules on school sponsorship by companies associated with unhealthy foods.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's claim that obesity is a result of less exercise rather than changing diet echoes the assertions of the manufacturers. These were comprehensively demolished by the committee.

But schools themselves must not wait on government action. As we report on page 17, more time for physical activity can be found in even the most crowded curriculum. And while ministers consider making cooking classes compulsory, schools can make a start by using TES Get Active cards to teach pupils about healthy eating and by promoting healthy options at dinner time.

Heads should also ask themselves whether the money they make from the unhealthy snacks and fizzy drinks sold in vending machines is enough to justify the damage they do to children's health.

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