As the new year starts, Victoria Wilkinson looks at children’s health across the school year.

This week, school children across the country are returning from the long summer holiday. The holidays are, for many children, a period of fun and adventure, and they will no doubt be returning to school with lots of stories to share with their friends. Yet for many children, particularly those living in less well-off homes, school holidays are a time when their physical health can suffer. A recent report from ukactive found that children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up for the summer holidays, with children from poorer areas particularly affected.

The importance of physical activity for children’s mental and physical wellbeing was put in the spotlight recently with the publication of a report from the Children’s Commissioner for England. It reminds us that children today are “the least active generation ever”, with only a quarter of boys and a fifth of girls in England meeting the CMO’s recommended 60 minutes of activity each day. Some of the factors contributing to this include holiday clubs and activities being deemed too expensive for many families, and many public areas perceived to be unsafe or unsuitable for child play. Interestingly, the report interviewed children directly to gain their perceptions; and many reported that if access to play and physical activities was easier, they would prefer this over the many hours spent online.

The report finds that it’s not just children’s physical fitness that suffers during the holidays, but also their nutrition. With childcare an expensive cost for many, budgets are tightened when their children are home for the holidays. Many families who rely on free meals during term time are forced to turn to cheap, unhealthy food for their children in the holidays.

The Commissioner makes several recommendations to government to address this, including: reducing the bureaucracy involved in getting financial help for childcare after school and during school holidays; funding holiday play schemes in disadvantaged areas; and finally putting out-of-school activities into the plan to reduce obesity.

So is the government doing enough to address physical inactivity? The government has pledged to improve access to physical education (PE) in schools, and the Department of Health and Social Care has committed to halving the rate of obesity in children by the year 2030. This is part of the Obesity Strategy – which has included the introduction of the Sugar Tax and the suggestion of banning junk food advertising until after the 9pm watershed.  The Strategy currently makes no mention of school holidays – references to physical activity are limited to encouraging of schools to invest in PE, and in its funding of measures to increase cycling and/or walking to school.

The provision for term-time physical activity is not indefinitely guaranteed. The government had recently assured an extra £160 million of funding per year for the Primary School PE and Sport Premium. This money was to come from the revenue generated from Sugar Tax. However, with many manufacturers reformulating their drinks to include less sugar, the income from the tax is far from certain, with the government only able to guarantee the funding until 2020. In addition to this, schools are having to fend off cuts to their sports programmes; with a report published earlier in the year by the Youth Sport Trust showing that up to 38 per cent of English secondary schools have cut Physical Education classes for 14-16-year olds since 2012. This is attributed to several factors; including an increased amount of exam pressures leading to physical education time being reduced and cuts to the number of PE staff.

Whilst the Children’s Commissioner has recently chosen to focus on child health during the holidays, it is clear that the problem of physical inactivity is not consigned to the 13 or so weeks of school holiday. If the government truly wants to improve child health, both mentally and physically, it needs to ensure that its child health policies help children to be more active throughout the year.