Tuesday 10 December 2013


An article on this morning's Today programme, which I pass on without further comment:

Children aren't doing enough exercise, and the reason is that there isn't a national plan to encourage them. Now, some academics and supporters, including the West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, are saying that the consequence isand I quote them"child neglect", because they're not being told of the risk of chronic disease that comes as a result of lack of exercise. Well, is that true? Dr Richard Wheeler, a consultant in sport and exercise medicine at University College Hospital in London has made that claim in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (he's also the club doctor, incidentally, at West Ham). Tim Lawton is the former Children's Minister, and I spoke to them both, Dr Wheeler first.

We believe that what we found is that there has been a persistent failure from this government and former governments to meet child's basic physical and psychological needs which are likely to result in serious impairment of a child's health and development.

Let's take it as agreed that children could do with more exercise, and that people who take more exercise when they're young are likely to avoid some potential major health problems later in life. Let's just assume that for the sake of this argument. What do you think government can and should do? because that is where some people will take issue with you.

I can understand that. You know, children don't choose who their parents are, they don't choose what they do at school, they don't choose which school they go to, they don't choose their socio-economic class, they don't choose what access they have to facilities. The bottom line is, is that children go to school, there's a massive opportunity at school to do something about this, and to improve the physical literacy and physical education of our children. At the moment there's no statutory obligation for schools to even provide physical education and physical literacy, and Ofsted don't monitor it. At the moment its importance is utterly neglected. And when you compare that against the risks—if we agree that there is no debate there in terms of the risks of continuing to do this—it meets the government's own definition of child neglect. And the level of finance is pitiful.

Tim Lawton, what do you make of it?

I don't know whether the British Journal of Sports Medicine is trying to promote a Christmas Special, but this sort of sensationalist story is really unhelpful. I agree, we need to do much more for kids and sport, making it a part of their growing-up, something they want to do, because it's fun and enjoyable as well as being good for them. But child neglect is a persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and psychological needs resulting in serious impairment of health. That is a world of difference from kids not doing enough sport at the moment. And to put it in these terms—and this finger-wagging—which actually Dr Wheeler in articles himself has countered against in the past—is really unhelpful. The majority of kids who are taken into care in this country are for reasons of neglect, so is Dr Wheeler suggesting we should be taking millions more children into the care of the state? because that's not the solution.

I really don't agree with that at all. The government has a responsibility to do something about this, policy-makers have an opportunity to do something about this; they are aware of the harms. There are children as young as seven now that are developing Type-II diabetes. We've got one-fifth of children that enter primary school are obese; levels of children that are actually meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity to confer basic health benefits are pitifully low; we rank very, very poorly in this country in terms of child health behind most of our European counterparts. To focus on sport and not physical activity I think is very naïve and short-sighted, and it demonstrates a lack of understanding of child's health, well-being and their development. There's an opportunity to do something here. What else is there that we can do—unlike physical activity—that helps improve the grades of children, that improves their behaviour at school, that can improve their happiness, and it reduces the risk of numerous diseases ranging from Type-II diabetes to cardio-vascular disease and to various types of cancer? There is no other "best buy".

Hang on, hang on, you've had a good go there, I just want to bring Tim Lawton in. Leaving aside the question of whether "child neglect" is the appropriate phraseyou've made your views plain on that. As far as the effect of a lack of exercise or a bad diet on the future of the children is concerned, where do you think government does have a responsibility?

I agree with most of the diagnosis that we've just heard from Dr Wheeler, I just don't agree with the solution. And absolutely we need to have more sport and physical exercise, and that is the job of schools, but it's also the job of parents. I've got three very sporty children, because they've had schools that have pushed sport—

But Dr Wheeler made the point earlier that children can't choose their parents, and there are many children who don't get that opportunityand no doubt you encouraged your kids in sport, you know, lucky thembut there are many children who don't get that encouragement and, on top of that, are stuck with a dietnot their choicethey're fed junk foodwhich does them potentially quite a lot of harm in the long-run.

And that's why it's about educating the parents as well as educating the kids themselves. This does start at home, but we also need to make sure that schools are giving more space and more time for kids to be able to do more physical activity, and sport and competitive sport—and that's why the government's introduced these school games, which have been a tremendous success. But finger-wagging, accusing the government of mass neglect of children just deeply undermines the seriousness of this problem. The way you don't do it is by making physical activity and sport at school another mandatory activity that you do whether you like it or not, and you put kids off from a very early age from actually engaging in sport, enjoying sport, and wanting to do it because its fun as well as for all the benefits that brings as well as sociability and physical and health as well, and this really is alarmist and unhelpful.

Tim Lawton, Dr Richard Wheeler, thank you both very much indeed.

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