Executive Summary: Physical Activity in Early Childhood
The publication of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy in 2016 followed a pledge by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the wake of his 2015 General Election victory. The current May Government was criticised for dragging its heels over publication. The eventual Strategy was also considerably shorter than the original draft and advocated voluntary agreement rather than statute. On 18th August 2017, the Department of Health and Public Health England announced Phase Two: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action promoting voluntary take-up of a calorie reduction scheme:
‘Ready meals, pizzas, burgers, savoury snacks and sandwiches are the kinds of foods likely to be included in the programme.’
Childhood obesity was addressed by Minister of State for Health, Philip Dunne and Chief Executive of Public Health England, Duncan Selbie, who announced the intention to set up an Obesity Research Policy Unit. Following publication of evidence in early 2018, the food industry, trade bodies and non-governmental health organisations will be involved with the Government in the development of guidelines and a ‘timeline’ for the calorie reduction programme. This voluntary action plan majors in food consumption but ignores the vital role of physical activity. ‘Physical Activity in Early Childhood’ by the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood will argue here that facilitating and funding physical activity in early childhood is a not an optional extra, but an essential cornerstone of a fit and healthy adult society.
‘Physical Education: A Report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood’ (2016) contends that PE overall is a ‘Cinderella’ subject but the physical activity needs of the very youngest children are more urgent still. The Department of Education is yet to publish updated criteria for how schools must spend the Primary and Sports Premium grant that is to be doubled for the new academic year commencing September 2017. To date, it is only allocated to pupils in Years 1-6 (omitting Reception age classes). Physical Education and Personal and Health Education (PSHE) are non-core subjects within the National Curriculum. By way of guidance, Primary PE subject leaders are initially reliant upon the brief programmes of study issued by DfE in terms of what to deliver in physical learning for the youngest pupils in Primary schools. Given the need to address the core movement skills from as early school-age as possible, it is evidently vital that such professionals are trained and competent at supporting the up-skilling of early years’ practitioners so as to ensure that both confidence and ability are able to flourish within the age group.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood recommends accessible, sustainable and informative programmes of physical activity as essential components of child health and wellbeing. We show that rather than being ‘world leaders’ in early childhood physical activity, the UK trails other countries with no cohesive approach between the devolved UK nations. Children with mental or physical disabilities are by-passed (despite proven research into the benefit they derive from physical activity) and the inequalities in provision for young children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse cultural backgrounds are not prioritised.
Missed opportunities are plentiful. No ‘Child Obesity Strategy’ succeeds without strong physical activity content and research finds that physical activity from the earliest days has positive outcomes for emotional, social, academic and cognitive growth as well as bodily health. Such benefits precede birth, extending to both parents and during the postnatal period. Yet here there is a marked lack of accredited and funded training for healthcare and education professionals combined with a lack of nationally funded research into the benefits of early years’ physical activity. These issues must be confronted by any government intent upon boosting health outcomes and the APPG illustrates additionally, the ‘whole-child’ developmental benefits of baby and toddler swimming in a much wider sense than the obvious safety concerns.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood maintains that the responsibility of bringing together all those concerned directly or indirectly with physical activity in the early years (local authorities, sporting bodies, the voluntary sector, industry, media and advertising) belongs to the Government. Many examples of current good practice are listed below, but if nobody knows about them, their effect will be confined to residents in the immediate vicinity. Government’s priority should be to collate, cascade and champion best practice, thereby empowering parents, schools and health agencies to make informed decisions about physical activity for the youngest children.
Above all, the UK will not ‘lead the world’ in harnessing physical activity to improve the overall, health, wellbeing, fitness and happiness of young children if measures advocated are merely voluntary. Government must grasp the statutory baton for the sake of future generational health – and the savings to the Exchequer (occasioned by the financial cost of treating avoidable lifestyle-related disease) that we will all enjoy now. This should form the basis of 21st century progressive policy, but as with all the very best ideas, it is hardly new. According to Wordsworth: ‘The child is father to the man’ (‘My Heart Leaps Up’) and even farther back,
‘Give me a child until the age of seven and I will show you the man’ (Aristotle).
The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood hopes that the Government will listen, learn and act.
HELEN CLARK: SEPTEMBER 2017
The Working Group that produced this report is a sub-group of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood. The purpose of the APPG is to promote evidence-based discussion and produce reports on all aspects of childhood health and wellbeing including obesity; to inform policy decisions and public debate relating to childhood; and to enable communications between interested parties and relevant parliamentarians. Group details are recorded on the Parliamentary website at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/fit-and-healthy-childhood.htm
The Working Group is chaired by Helen Clark, a member of the APPG Secretariat. Working Group members are volunteers from the APPG membership with an interest in this subject area. The Report is divided into themed subject chapters with recommendations that we hope will influence active Government policy.