Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Why ‘Healthy School’ Policies May Not Always Be Healthy

Nine-year-old boys have a very strong sense of fairness.  When I pick my son up from school there’s rarely a day when some perceived injustice isn’t the first thing he wants to talk about. There’s a lot of “it’s not fair because” or “we’re not allowed to” punctuating the conversation but of course by the time we’ve arrived home, the challenges of his day are replaced with more pressing concerns – namely how many biscuits he can snaffle from the biscuit jar. 

But the other day, there was one subject that my son wouldn’t let drop. A new rule had come into place…and this time it really wasn’t fair at all.

Now, before I put forward my case, be assured that I’m fully signed up to the healthy eating ethos. My cupboards are filled with chia seeds, almond butter and coconut milk. Family meals are always cooked from scratch and rarely do we succumb to processed foods or takeaways. My kids are a healthy weight, have good teeth and regularly exercise. But – here’s the thing – I let them have sweet things on occasion (those aforementioned biscuits – I’m not going to lose sleep over them having a couple with a glass of water when they get home from school.)

My son’s school, however, doesn’t share my view of everything in moderation. It’s a ‘healthy school’, which, in principle is something I’m happy to support, but is rather contradictory and counterproductive when put into action. The injustice my son was feeling so unhappy about the other day was the latest addition to school policy: not allowing children to bring in a bag of sweets to share out amongst their classmates on their birthdays, something that – like dressing in mufti– helped to take the sting out of having to go to school on your special day.

I don’t know if this happens at other schools but it’s a tradition that is as old as the hills at my son’s school. The birthday child – standing proud at the classroom door – hands out a sweet, a fun size chocolate bar or a lollipop to their friends as they file out. We’re talking about each child having ONE treat. And if there are 30 kids in the class, that’s 30 sweets over a period of around 190 days across a school year.

But now this isn’t a thing anymore and parents are being asked to supply a book for the class library instead as a birthday ‘treat’. My son wasn’t too impressed with this suggestion. Nor was the mother of the child who came out of school upset on her birthday because she and her parents hadn’t been aware of the new policy. The ‘counterfeit’ sweets the little girl had innocently brought into school that day had been seized, she’d been embarrassed in front of her classmates and the end of the day passed without so much as a ‘happy birthday’ sing-song.

I’m obviously not saying that it’s okay to load children with sugar. It’s not. But muddled policies around healthy eating in schools– although perhaps inconsequential in the grand scheme of the current educational landscape, with its constant curriculum changes and crippling cuts – undermine parents’ abilities to instil balanced attitudes to eating in their children. 

And here’s the rub. Surely becoming a ‘healthy school’ has to come from the top? While I take a lot of what my son says with a liberal pinch of salt (“But the teachers are always eating biscuits!”), I’ve definitely seen a big tub of Celebrations in the staffroom and I honestly can’t believe that there’s not one teacher in the school who occasionally has a Hob Nob with their break time coffee. And then there are the after school cake and ice cream sales, lucrative money-spinners for the PTFA. Should they not be banned too, along with the ice cream man who sells 99s and ice lollies just outside the school gates?

There’s another rub too. While enforcing this policy on what passes the kids’ lips, they seem to be hell-bent on doing their best to limit their physical activity. While reduced hours of PE is perhaps a wider curriculum issue, I’m getting a bit fed up of hearing from my son about all of the things he’s not allowed to do at playtime. Playing football is the latest activity to be curbed, because a ball might hit a younger child. And so the state-of-the-art astro turf pitch remains a place for carefully walking upon (I wouldn’t be surprised if running has been banned), while my 9-year-old and his gaggle of footy-mad friends can only gaze at it longingly and look forward to a kick around after school.

It just all feels a bit muddled. It’s fine to pack a sugar-loaded cereal bar in their lunchbox but a slice of home-made Victoria Sponge is a no-no. Notoriously sugary fruit juice cartons are okay but the water in the water fountains comes out luke-warm and my son says he’s been refused getting a cup of water when he’s been thirsty in the classroom. His sandwiches are frequently only nibbled at due to the rush to get the dining hall cleaned and swept. He often emerges from school in a foul mood, starving hungry and with his blood sugar running at empty.

I certainly don’t expect schools to validate unhealthy eating habits and I’m shocked by the statistics on childhood obesity. But I worry that contradictory messages only confuse the issue, creating yet more complexity in the delicate area of children and food.  We need to nurture healthy attitudes towards food and be mindful that well-meaning but poorly executed policies to food in school may be paving the way to toxic relationships with food later in life – a study commissioned by Beat in 2015 estimated that more then 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.

I believe that schools have a duty to educate our children and young people about leading a healthy lifestyle and I’m happy that vending machines and tuck shops in schools are a thing of the past. But let’s keep a sense of balance and perspective – everything in moderation might not be such a bad message to share with our children.

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