Primary schools should test pupils’ physical fitness, report recommends

Primary schools should test children’s levels of physical fitness, just as they test their ability in maths and English, a new report recommends.

Not-for-profit health body ukactive believes the extra monitoring would encourage pupils to become more physically active. It says that the recording of children’s fitness in primary schools is “rare and at best sporadic”.

Fewer than half the schools ukactive surveyed (43 per cent) tracked the amount of time children spent actually being active in PE lessons, excluding time spent changing into kit or carrying out other tasks. The charity warned that the nation was facing a “ticking time bomb” of a physical inactivity pandemic, with only half of seven-year-olds meeting the guidelines of carrying out a hour of exercise a day.

The body’s Generation Inactive report says that although it is considered unacceptable for parents and teachers not to have a basic understanding of pupils’ ability in maths and English when they leave primary, in the case of pupils’ fitness levels this is normal.

Currently, schools in England aim to provide two hours of PE or sport a week for pupils aged 5 to 16, but the report says that many still fail to achieve even that. It points out that a slim child does not automatically mean a healthy child, and calls for the government to extend the National Child Measurement Programme to assess fitness in addition to the current measurement of body mass index (BMI).

The report stresses that physical fitness and health needs to be appraised in a fun, inclusive and age-appropriate way, citing the example of Montpelier Primary School in Ealing, West London, which already ensures that physical activity takes place throughout the entire school day.

Examples of this include “Kung Fu punctuation” in English lessons, where children make Kung Fu style hand movements to signify where an exclamation mark or full stop should go rather than simply raising their hands or shouting out. Headteacher Am Rai said the measures had also led to improvements in pupils’ behaviour.

Chair of ukactive and Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson said that changes as simple as children standing in lessons and developing more structured use of playtime could be implemented.

“The current national ambition focused solely around PE lessons is simply not bold enough,” she said. “We should aim higher and demand more.”

The focus should be on ensuring that children were given all the necessary support possible in order to achieve the 60 minutes of daily activity recommended in the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines, she said, adding: “This does not mean we wish to see 60 minutes of timetabled PE per day. Instead, we are calling for a focus on a ‘whole school approach’.”

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is backing the report. Professor Russell Viner, the college’s officer for health promotion, said: “A sedentary lifestyle doesn’t just mean that a child could be overweight. It is an issue that can affect a child’s entire life, from poor concentration levels impacting on life chances post-school and increased risk of emotional and well-being issues like depression, right through to developing lifelong medical conditions such as type two diabetes – all of which can have dire consequences if not managed properly.

“We already know that a healthy child is much more likely to go on to be a healthy adult, so it is important that we set children on the right trajectory from an early age and continue to encourage healthy lifestyles as they move through life.”

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