Sharon was asked to speak at a conference in London looking at the importance of tackling childhood health issues, in particular childhood obesity.
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Thank you Doreen (Massey, Baroness Massey of Darwen).
I am very grateful for the opportunity to be speaking at this conference today – as those in the room who know me and with whom I have worked on the issue of food in schools will know, this is an issue which I’m extremely passionate about, and on which I have been campaigning for a number of years, ever since I became an MP in 2005.
I’m sure others in the room will have noticed that I’m far from malnourished myself, and I hope that this doesn’t disqualify me in your eyes from being able to campaign for better school food or talk about obesity.
I was a skinny kid and a slim young woman, and I certainly know how it creeps up on you and the battle it then becomes – which is why I believe I am so driven by this agenda and challenged by Richard’s talk.
As I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate, the rate of childhood obesity is nothing short of a national scandal, which will cost us tens of billions over the next few decades.
Overweight children nearly always become overweight adults, and it was in the news yesterday that health experts believe that the cost of obesity could be up to £60bn a year by 2050.
Now I know estimates vary, but everyone agrees that it is unsustainable financially and morally to sit back and do nothing about it.
But at the same time we also have many of our poorest children and those from chaotic homes coming to school having had no breakfast, or with lunchboxes that contain nothing more than a bag of crisps and a chocolate biscuit – if they’re lucky.
Again, just yesterday the Guardian reported that four out of five teachers see pupils who are hungry in the morning, and more than half believe this applies to up to a quarter of their pupils, and that this number has been rising over the last few years.
Those teachers see the tragedy that this is - around half of those surveyed said they have taken food into school to give to children who have not had breakfast, or actually given a child money out of their own pocket to buy lunch.
And I know that it’s not just breakfast that many of these children will be missing – some of them may well have gone to bed hungry, and the lack of breakfast will just compound that.
Some of those children may not, in fact, have eaten a proper meal since their school meal, free or otherwise, the previous day.
What chance do those children have of learning anything while their stomachs growl, and they feel nauseous and faint?
I believe that it is the role and responsibility of government to do whatever is within their power to tackle the poor diets and lifestyles that are contributing to both of these scandals, and that there is no better or more cost-effective medium through which we can do that than through our education system.
Children enter that system ready to learn, and I can’t think of many more important things we can teach them than how to live a healthy life – although our current Education Secretary probably places memorising the entire works of Shelley and Keats above that on his priority list.
They’re certainly a mouthful, but they won’t reduce the numbers of our children going hungry, or eating junk food.
So what should the government be doing?
Probably the most topical of my concerns is the nutritional standard of food in schools.
As everyone here will know, between 2005 and 2010 we saw a step change in the priority that the government gave to the nutritional quality of food in schools, thanks primarily to the power of a certain celebrity chef to get a TV show made about it, and therefore get the public behind his campaign.
So the previous government got the regulations and the investment in place, and things improved.
Unhealthy drinks and snacks were banished from vending machines, and school caterers stepped up to the challenge of ensuring that pupils who ate school meals got a nutritionally-balanced and filling lunch.
While we’re talking more about health outcomes today, educational outcomes are equally important for me, and the Institute for Social and Economic Research’s study on the effects of improved food in the Greenwich pilot showed clearly that the increased standards led to a boost in average scores at the end of primary school.
The percentage of pupils reaching level 4 increased by 3 to 6 points in English, and the percentage of pupils reaching level 5 in Science increased by 3 to 8 points.
Authorised absences, which are mainly down to health reasons, were reduced too.
And those are just the immediate effects after a short pilot scheme – the beauty of a programme like this, especially if sustained, is that the effects are felt for decades to come.
Recent research from the School Food Trust has also proved that the new, healthier menus are leading to children and young people making healthier choices, and making progress towards getting their 5 a day.
But then the new government came in, and decided that they wanted to make big changes to the education system, and that their academies and free schools, in which a million pupils and rising are taught, would not have to meet those standards.
We should have seen the writing on the wall when the School Lunch Grant was effectively scrapped around the same time.
These decisions were made for no reason other than a dogmatic belief that giving schools more flexibility in the matter will improve standards – a belief which seems inconsistent with the prescriptive nature of the changes to the primary curriculum I alluded to earlier.
When pressed on this, the stock answer from Ministers was, and I quote:
“Schools converting to Academies will already have been providing healthy, balanced meals that meet the current standards. We have no reason to believe that they will stop doing so on conversion, or that new Free Schools will not do so either.”
Well, now they do have a reason to believe that some academies and free schools will not do so.
Research, again by the School Food Trust, has shown that some academies are abandoning the nutritional standards, and I would imagine that as contracts come up for renewal and the current over-funding of academies is rectified, we will see the numbers increase.
Some, of course, will stick to the guidelines, and will make it a priority, because the head recognises the importance of doing so.
But some won’t – particularly because they won’t get any credit for it from Ofsted or the government – and the government have therefore taken a gamble with the health and educational outcomes of our children.
And to make it worse, there’s very little parents can do about it, other than to stop their children from having meals, which would cost those who qualify for free school meals around £360 per child per year, or plead with the Secretary of State to do something about it.
This is just not acceptable.
As I was alluding to earlier, for many of the children and young people who benefit from free school meals and therefore have them every day, that could well be the only proper meal they get.
We must therefore ensure that that meal is a good one, whatever school those children are in.
So we in the Labour Party will continue to support the fantastic campaign on this that is being run by organisations such as Sustain, LACA, School Food Matters and the Jamie Oliver Foundation.
100 MPs have now signed a Commons motion supporting that campaign, and if any of you here haven’t lobbied your own MP to get them to add their name yet, please do so – the more voices we have, the more the government have to listen.
Free school meals/breakfast clubs
During the last government, as the quality of school meals was improving, we obviously wanted all children living in poverty to have them.
For that reason, prior to the 2010 election, we had committed to extending eligibility to free school meals to children from households with income below £16,190 from September 2010.
This would have benefitted 500,000 children, and lifted 50,000 out of poverty.
We had also instigated pilot schemes for universal free school meals in Durham and Newham, and extended eligibility in Wolverhampton, with a further 5 more pilots planned.
This was based on the strong evidence from an earlier pilot scheme in Hull over 3 years, which was evaluated by Professor Colqhoun of Hull university who highlighted a number of positive impacts, including parents improving the quality of food at home, improved attendance and concentraition, children having more energy, and therefore health and educational outcomes improving.
Unfortunately, the five further pilots and the extension to the eligibuility criteria were scrapped as soon as the Coalition Government took over.
In fact, it was one of the very first things they did.
Looking ahead, we’re not sure how many children are going to get free school meals under the new Universal Credit system either.
Several organisations, including the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Society and the Children’s Commissioner and many others, have appealed for eligibility to be extended to all children in households that get universal credit.
That would certainly cost a lot more than at present, but it is something that the government should consider.
Particularly following the guardian article yesterday, they should also be looking at support for breakfast clubs for all children eligible for free school meals, to ensure that mornings are not lost to hunger either.
The last Labour government provided ringfenced funding for pre- and after-school activities like breakfast clubs, which has now basically disappeared, meaning that clubs are closing.
There are, however, plenty of organisations out there who want to help provide them – like Greggs in the North East, Magic Breakfast in London, and Kellogg’s across the country.
I think the government should be looking at how they can harness the good will that is out there to ensure that all schools are covered by breakfast clubs.
I am not dogmatic about who is providing the funding, but there needs to be leadership to pull it together, and that should come from the top.
Cooking on the curriculum
Moving on from that, another important way schools can contribute to improving diets and therefore health outcomes is through cooking being in the curriculum.
Another plank of Jamie Oliver’s campaign was about teaching children how to plan and prepare healthy meals for themselves.
This built on the impact that healthy school lunches was having – and in many cases improved the skills and diets of parents and the wider family, as children took what they had learnt home with them, and pestered in the supermarket for ingredients, rather than (or perhaps as well as, realistically) the usual sweets and crisps.
And again, this was something that the last Government, and particularly Ed Balls, took forward with gusto.
Ed is famous in Westminster circles for his culinary skills, so it’s not really a surprise he was so keen to make this a priority.
I’m sure many households still have a copy of his cookbook that each child received – a lot more useful than Michael Gove’s one per school bibles, in my opinion.
For some of my daughter’s friends, that was the only cookbook they had in their house.
So we made cooking a priority - in 2008 we announced that by the start of this academic year, every pupil would get practical cookery lessons in the first three years of secondary school.
Funding was found to provide fresh ingredients, and schools were supported to build facilities and recruit and train specialist teachers and learning assistants.
Once again, that commitment was scrapped by Michael Gove, and the future of food education throughout the key stages is still in doubt while Ministers redesign the curriculum.
In fact, if a leak in today’s newspapers is accurate then the national curriculum for secondary schools is to be scrapped altogether, so all schools can set their own curriculum like Academies and free schools.
Even if that happens in the end or not, I fear that these skills will not be a priority under this government, or in particular this Secretary of State.
Again, this is throwing away years of hard work and investment, and does nothing to aid our national battle with obesity – or for that matter, malnutrition.
Now we know for some children their free school meal may be the only proper meal they get, for a similar cohort the food skills they get at school may be the only ones they get too.
In fact, these are more than likely to be the exact same children we’re talking about – after all, if a parent isn’t feeding a child correctly or at all, then they’re unlikely to spend their evenings showing them how to whip up a Spaghetti Bolognese or Shepherd’s Pie.
For the sake of those children there has to be sustained pressure on the government to recognise the importance of food education in schools, and make it a mandatory part of the curriculum (if we still have one) right up to the start of Key Stage 4.
I know there are some great organisations out there doing things like this on a school by school basis – organisations like The Academy of Culinary Arts and their Chefs Adopt a School programme, which I’m hopefully going to see in action in the Autumn.
Organisations like the Kids Cookery School here in London, and like School Food Matters and the Food for Life Partnership, who do excellent work across the country.
I understand that many school caterers run cooking classes for the whole family too – teaching parents the recipes of their child’s favourite school meals, so they can make them at home and enjoy them as a family.
The work they and others in the voluntary sector do to support schools in teaching their children about food and how to cook it is brilliant, but the benefit of those kinds of programmes won’t be available to all children until the government take the lead in telling schools that their contribution towards health outcomes, and especially tackling obesity, is a priority.
I’m aware looking down the list of presenters here today that the points I have made so far will no doubt be echoed.
But one element which might not feature so prominently is the role of our education system in promoting active lifestyles, through fostering the participation of as many children and young people as possible in sport and physical activity as a way of keeping fit, but also for fun and even their social development.
It’s not just schools who have a role in this – local authorities do too.
The community and voluntary sector are obviously a big part of the picture as well, in providing opportunities for children to pursue the sports they are interested in – and the private sector (such as professional clubs and sporting businesses) have a role in supporting the work they do too.
I’m actually a trustee of the British Basketball League Foundation, which runs the Hoops for Health tournament across the country, getting young people of all abilities and from all kinds of backgrounds on to the court playing basketball.
I’ve also seen the great work Sunderland Football Club’s foundation does in my constituency in getting kids active – and not just through football.
And obviously we can’t forget the role of parents as the single biggest influence on whether children and young people are encouraged and supported to take part in sport and physical exercise outside school.
But it is still schools that are best placed to inspire a long-term passion for sport and exercise.
Children don’t need gyms and equipment to exercise.
Young boys – and even older ones – will turn anything they can find into a football, and young girls will skip and jump rope and perform dance routines without any direction in the playground.
So it isn’t necessarily about funding – although I will come on to that.
But it is about making exercise a priority - encouraging those who already have an interest in sport, and trying to inspire it in those who don’t.
I’m hoping that the Olympics will provide a great groundswell of interest in all kinds of sports, and I know that lots of schools are working hard to get their pupils into the Olympic spirit.
As schools will be closed while the Games themselves are on TV, let’s hope that interest doesn’t ebb away by the time they return in September.
And although you would hope that councils will be doing their best to capitalise on the increased interest, with the tough funding cuts they’re facing, their ability to put on sporting opportunities over the summer has been severely curtailed.
Fostering participation in sport and exercise was a priority for the last government, who established School Sport Partnerships and funded them to create the opportunities for participation beyond PE lessons.
Unfortunately, this was another of the schemes which the government chopped as soon as they got in, along with free swimming.
Following a co-ordinated campaign by athletes, teachers and students, a small amount of the £165m cut was reinstated to keep things ticking over for a couple of years, but what about after that?
Yes, we have the school games for the best pupils, but what about the others?
The ones who are good at sport largely need little encouragement to take part – the reason they’re good is in many cases because they are getting the encouragement at home.
It is those who aren’t going to make the first team or have a chance of a podium finish who are the ones who typically lose interest as they go through school, and may never take part in regular exercise when they leave.
Again, I don’t think this is a priority for the DfE at the moment, and it really needs to be.
To sum up then – I have been fairly critical of this government, but that is only because I saw the strides made between 2005 and 2010 across all the areas I’ve talked about.
We might have been later to act than we needed to be, but you have to remember that both Ed Balls and myself were only elected in 2005!
So we did act, and progress was being made.
But it now feels as if that progress has been thrown out of the window, in favour of what?
This is not to criticise Richard and his colleagues in the civil service – these decisions were all political.
If we are to tackle this new epidemic, then we need serious co-ordinated action from government – and as I said right at the start of my speech, the education system is the best tool at government’s disposal.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we were getting there.
We just need this current government to get us back on track, and do a few more U-turns!