Government urged to stop thinking short term on children's physical activity policies

Jeremy Wilson
·6-min read
Children’s physical activity has declined alarmingly during the pandemic - GETTY IMAGES
Children’s physical activity has declined alarmingly during the pandemic - GETTY IMAGES

The Government has been urged to introduce new measures to benchmark the physical activity and wellbeing of children as part of a national strategy to make Britain’s young people the happiest and most active in the world.

Writing in The Telegraph, Ali Oliver, the chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, has backed our Keep Kids Active campaign and called on the Government to “accelerate” and “sharpen” its School Sport and Activity Action Plan amid plummeting activity levels during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government had set the target of giving children access to at least 60 minutes of daily activity when they launched the plan back in July 2019, but the numbers achieving that recommendation fell from 47 per cent to just 19 per cent during the first lockdown.

Teachers also reported widespread concerns over children’s fitness when most children did return during the autumn term. The Youth Sport Trust is working with the Oak National Academy to provide a virtual PE curriculum during this current lockdown, but Oliver also wants this backed up by a concerted national long-term strategy.

“This generation-defining challenge requires a generation-defining response,” she said. “So we are urging government to be bold. The Telegraph’s Keep Kids Active campaign is absolutely right to be calling for an ambitious plan. Now is the moment for the School Sport and Activity Action Plan to be dusted off and, in the aftermath of Covid-19, recast into a bold vision for our children to be the happiest and most active in the world. This is achievable.”

As well as highlighting the dangers of “change for change’s sake” and successful past polices which were shelved “prematurely”, the Youth Sports Trust also wants greater accountability by nationally benchmarking children’s physical activity and wellbeing across all age groups.

“By accelerating and sharpening the focus of the School Sport and Activity Action Plan now, and aligning it to a new measure of young people’s wellbeing, government would send an important message to young people, families and the wider world about what we value as a nation,” said Oliver.

“Getting young people active not only makes them happier and healthier – it improves their concentration and ability to learn.

“Twelve disrupted months in the life of a child represents a huge loss of time in the development of their brain and body.

“The decline of this generation’s physical fitness risks storing up issues for the future, and a deepening inequality has meant many of the most vulnerable children have fallen further behind their peers.”

Bold vision needed to make our children active

By Ali Oliver, Chief Executive, Youth Sport Trust

When the Government launched the first edition of its “School Sport and Activity Action Plan” in the summer of 2019, it aimed to give every young person 60 minutes a day of sport and physical activity. This is the chief medical officer’s recommended amount for children aged five to 16.

It was badly needed. Physical education had been squeezed from school timetables over a decade in which inactivity remained stubbornly high, while more young people became overweight and struggled with their mental health.

In summer 2019 we could never have foreseen the situation we find ourselves in today: schools closed to most pupils, replaced by hours and hours of sedentary screen-based learning, community sport cancelled and children unable to even meet up and play with friends.

The toll this is taking is a matter of national concern. Since last March, children have been less active and missed out on the very things which help them to develop physically, socially and emotionally.

Twelve disrupted months in the life of a child represents a huge loss of time in the development of their brain and body, and for the formative experiences of exploring what they are capable of and how to interact with the world.

The decline of this generation’s physical fitness risks storing up issues for the future, and a deepening inequality has meant many of the most vulnerable children have fallen further behind their peers.

In the challenging weeks ahead, charities such as ours will be supporting teachers, parents and carers to ensure children’s right to PE is protected and that sedentary remote learning is broken up by physical activities that promote health and education. We will be raising awareness of the losses children are experiencing and their consequences. And we will be pushing for a proactive national approach that prioritises children’s long-term wellbeing and life chances.

This generation-defining challenge requires a generation-defining response. So we are urging the Government to be bold.

The Telegraph’s Keep Kids Active Campaign is absolutely right to be calling for an ambitious plan. Now is the moment for the “School Sport and Activity Action Plan” to be dusted off and, in the aftermath of Covid-19, recast into a bold vision for our children to be the happiest and most active in the world.

This is achievable. The Government and the National Lottery put significant resource into school sport and PE through various schemes and programmes. We at the Youth Sport Trust believe much more can be achieved for our young people with a different approach. Crucially, as a country, we need to stop thinking short term and start learning from our past successes. All too often, change for change’s sake has led to the premature end of successful policies. For a nation with such a proud sporting heritage, we have not done enough to learn from the best of our achievements. We need to embed this learning in a long-term strategy for the future.

Let me bring this to life: Throughout its history, PE has been linked to a broader social purpose and outcome, from the use of military drill when the subject was under the responsibility of the War Office, to the therapeutic use of exercise and the outdoors in the 1800s when the chief medical officer focused the subject on health. In the shadow of a global pandemic with a significant impact on young people’s education and development, PE should again have a clear and intentional national purpose.

From local school sport coordinators of the past to school games organisers of today, some of the best developments in PE and sport have been driven by a nationally coordinated, but locally deployed team of inspiring experts. They bring drive and focus to national ambitions, but also local knowledge, insight and relationships to land national plans effectively. The national School Games programmes engage 21,000 schools through the a team of just 450 organisers. We should build on the impact and efficiency of this approach.

In the early 2000s, specialist sports colleges – schools that harnessed the inspiration and ethos of physical activity and sport – became the fastest-improving schools in England. More recently, the research of academics such as Harvard Medical School’s Prof John Ratey has shown the clear link between physical activity and cognition. Getting young people active not only makes them happier and healthier – it improves their concentration and ability to learn.

I firmly believe a bold national ambition that harnesses the insight of our past successes, with the resources and expertise of professionals who stand ready to help, should be at the heart of the national recovery effort. By accelerating and sharpening the focus of the School Sport and Activity Action Plan now, and aligning it to a new measure of young people’s wellbeing, the Government would send an important message to young people, families and the wider world about what we value as a nation.