At the end of January, Sport England (2015) released the findings of their latest Active People survey. It is the largest survey of sport and recreation ever carried out in Europe and a valuable resource for the education and sports sector, providing national and local demographic information on who participates in sport, the ways that people are engaging, and figures on individual sports. The latest results are fairly positive, with the number of young people in England who regularly take part in sport showing an increase of 1.6 million between 2005 and 2014. However, the popularity of certain sports showed a change, with 245,000 fewer people taking part in swimming compared to the previous year, but a rise in the numbers of people playing team sports such as football, rugby union, cricket and netball. Athletics participation also jumped from 2,016,400 in October 2013 to 2,161,600 in October 2014.
Figures from the recent National Child Measurement programme (NCMP, 2014) also show a slight improvement in child obesity levels in recent years. Each year the NCMP records the height and weight of state school children in reception and year 6 across England in order to calculate their body mass index. This data is used to inform national policy and local planning and commissioning of services, and is therefore a valuable insight into the state of childhood health. Despite improvements in measurements since the 2006-7 year, the programme has highlighted many ongoing concerns. Key findings from the 2013-14 measurements included the relationship between lower socioeconomic status and the prevalence of obesity in children, with children in the most deprived decile almost twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived. There was also a greater prevalence of obesity amongst boys in both age groups, and the percentage of children with obesity doubled from reception (9.6%) to year 6 (19.1%) for both genders.
Both reports show a very slow and uneven progression in terms of childhood health; not the type of continuous rapid change that is needed in order to tackle the obesity and inactivity epidemic in the UK. The NCMP (2014) highlighted the worrying fact that despite some moves in the right direction over the last decade, 22.5% of reception aged children were still classed as overweight or obese, and 33.5% of children leave primary school already with weight issues.
The role that PE and school sport play in combatting obesity cannot be overestimated. Recently, Edward Timson, parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, highlighted that high quality physical education is vital to ensuring all children are given the opportunity to develop a healthy and active lifestyle from a young age. In an advocacy statement for the Association for Physical Education (2015), Timson noted the benefits that PE had in encouraging an ongoing love of physical activity and sport; something that is urgently needed in Britain. PE plays a critical role in educating the whole student, with a multitude of research supporting the importance of physical activity in developing both the mind and body, benefiting both academic learning and the health and exercise patterns of students. A recent example, a study carried out by Ericsson and Karlsson (2012) investigated the relationship between motor skills and school performance in children with daily physical education in schools through a nine-year intervention study. The aim was to investigate long-term effects of increased physical education on school achievement, and the results showed that daily PE and adapted motor skills training during the school year is a viable method of improving both physical skills and academic performance. This study is just one example of many that highlight the clear link between exercise and cognitive ability (Fedewa & Soyeon, 2013; Chaddock-Hayman, Hillman, Cohen & Kramer, 2014; Janssen et al, 2014).
There is a clear problem with childhood (and adult) obesity in the UK, and meaningful, high quality health and physical education is one of the best strategies for tackling and reversing this trend, increasing the likelihood of young people living healthier and more productive lives during and after childhood. Health and physical education programmes can be life changing for today’s students, offering improved physical fitness, skill development, self-discipline, improved judgement, stress reduction, strengthened peer relationships, improved self confidence and self esteem, and experience with setting goals (Bailey, 2006). Positive involvement in a structured PE education from a young age should therefore be considered an essential part of the overall school experience.