How schools can help children eat well and be active

Health news

The health of children and young people in the UK is getting worse, with children’s education, health and wellbeing affected by inactivity and unhealthy diets, new research has found.

The latest report by the Child of the North research group which includes academics from the N8 Partnership universities, including the University of Leeds, and the think tank Centre for Young Lives, sets out recommendations for schools to improve provisions for physical activity and healthy nutrition, in a bid to tackle Britain’s child obesity crisis.  

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of The North report series editor, and Chair in Cognitive Psychology at Leeds, said: “The links between health and education are illustrated perfectly through the negative impact on learning created by a malnourished child. A healthy country needs to invest in its future workforce, and this means supporting schools to help children eat well and be active. The paltry costs necessary to ensure children learn effectively would be swamped by the long-term savings the NHS would make if it wasn’t picking up the obesity problems created through the first two decades of someone’s life.” 

Key Findings 

Physical activity and a healthy diet in childhood have been shown to improve educational attainment, and physical and mental health outcomes.  

However, since 1995, physical activity levels have been decreasing, and diet quality has decreased, with an increased intake of processed foods and reduced intake of fruit and vegetables. 

“A greater focus on physical activity in school is long overdue, as are the resources and specialist staff to deliver rich physical exercise experiences. We need to better recognise those schools which are placing a greater importance on improving physical activity, healthier diets, and wellbeing by recognising their endeavours through the schools’ inspection system.” 

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives

The report highlights how: 

●    Almost 4m children are not physically active for the recommended 60-plus minutes a day. 

●    Children and young people from the least affluent families are the least likely to be active, with fewer than half meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines 

●    4,000 hours of PE were lost from the curriculum in state-funded secondary schools in 2022/23. 

●    250,000 eligible children are missing out on Free School Meals due to the out-dated opt-in system, and 900,000 children living in poverty in England do not qualify for Free School Meals at all due to restrictive eligibility. 

●    18% of households experienced food insecurity in 2022-23. 

●    82% of 5–15-year-olds do not consume the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, and children aged 4-10 years are consuming almost double their recommended daily sugar limits. 

●    Fewer than 2% of packed lunches meet the Government’s School Food Standards. 

The report also highlights the challenges facing schools as they try to provide healthy food on tiny budgets.  

It included research studies which showed how children on free school meals often faced restricted choices, having to opt for meal deals, including a main, a dessert, and a drink, even though in some instances, non-meal-deal items offered healthier alternatives.  

There was a lack of fruit, vegetables, and salad in all schools, and portion sizes were often not filling, leaving children hungry.  

Such limitations around school meals have  a negative impact on children’s educational success and mental and physical wellbeing.  

The combination of inactivity and unhealthy diet is also fuelling the obesity epidemic, with long-term negative impacts on physical and mental health, and the additional pressures this puts on the NHS. Currently, obesity rates are costing the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and obesity is the second largest preventable cause of cancer. 

Evidence-based recommendations 

The report sets out evidence-based recommendations to give schools powers to develop their own holistic approaches to improving healthy diets and physical activity. 

The authors also urge the Government to support schools to diversify curriculum and teacher training, placing the health and wellbeing of pupils at the centre of teaching and school life. 

The report – the fifth in a year-long series of joint Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives reports – argues that schools should be crucial environments for boosting healthy eating and physical activity, and highlights overwhelming evidence ofn the need to empower schools to devise their own whole-school approaches in collaboration with their local communities. The report also recommends the need for: 

Introducing clear nutrition standards for all food and drink available at school including school meals, snacks, and vending machines, and supporting schools to promote physical activity throughout all areas of the school day 

Extending free school fruit and vegetables provision to all school year groups and expanding the provision of school breakfast clubs. 

Widening entitlement to Free School Meals and the provision of the Healthy Start scheme, which provides weekly food vouchers for pregnant women and families with children under four years, in low-income households 

The report urges Government to: 

  • Establish whole-school approaches for physical activity and healthy nutrition, bringing together health and education to better support childhood health and wellbeing. Every school should be able to tailor its own approach based on its unique local circumstances. 
  • Support schools to deliver an ethos where the health and wellbeing of pupils is central to teaching practices and the wider school environment, and encourage Ofsted to recognise schools that emphasise the importance of activity and healthy eating. 
  • Support schools to work alongside local Higher Education institutions, to draw on research expertise, including expertise on physical activity and healthy nutrition, to highlight the most effective interventions and use local and national data to guide good practice, in coordination with local communities. 

Further information

Please email the University of Leeds Press Office on for further information. 

Read the report, ‘An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings’ on the N8 Research Partnership website. 

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