Getting exercised about our students' health
Schools say tuck shop is not the only battleground for fighting the flab
With frequent, scary headlines about obesity levels among the population, it is no surprise that schools are being urged to redouble their efforts in promoting healthy lifestyles among their pupils.
A Department of Education circular issued to primary schools in recent weeks, following on from a similar circular to post-primary schools last term, focusses on encouraging physical activity and good eating habits. It is all part of the Government's Healthy Ireland plan.
Work already done by schools in these areas is acknowledged, although there are also clear "could do better" messages in the Department's missives. For instance, while a 2012 survey found that 93pc of primary schools had a healthy eating policy in place, at post-primary level it was only 55pc.
The same 2012 survey also found that 90pc of post-primary schools were not implementing the recommended two hours of PE provision every week, a situation that had deteriorated since the previous survey in 2009. Meanwhile, primary schools were picked up on the amount of time given to PE for infant classes.
The results of the next survey in the series, conducted in 2015 and due to be released in a few weeks, will provide an updated picture.
The Department concedes that regulating food intake is not the job of schools, but says that they are well placed to support pupils in making healthy choices, and the circulars suggest ways in which they can do it.
The official advice does not include a ban on vending machines, which are popular at second level, and, depending on how they are stocked, can offer easy access to high-sugar or high-salt snacks and sugar-sweetened drinks.
The Department acknowledges schools' arguments that they need the revenue stream from the machines and, after years of education cuts, clearly found it hard to disagree. "It is not the intention to end this practice", the post-primary circular states.
Instead, the official advice is for schools to adopt healthy options for vending machines and tuck shops, including not selling food or beverage products that contain more than 250 calories per item, a threshold that actually allows many high-sugar, high-fat and high-salt snacks in under its radar.
Emma Dineen, president of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), says schools can and do play their part to promote healthy lifestyles and combat childhood obesity, but need "real support from government, not circulars which talk about a healthy lifestyle".
She produces a raft of statistics to show the commitment within the primary sector to health-promoting activities and believes the policy-makers need to look closer to home if they want to help schools to do a better job in fighting the national flab.
"More than 80pc of schools are involved in physical education activities outside of school time, most involving the voluntary commitment of teachers. The forthcoming Dublin Primary School Sports in Santry Stadium is one example of this, involving over 11,000 primary school pupils in athletics, making it one of the biggest sporting events in the country.
"More than 7,000 primary teachers are involved in the promotion of Gaelic games, while others actively promote children's involvement in soccer, basketball or other sports."
According to Ms Dineen, the majority of schools provide more than the minimum one hour per week of physical education.
"This is remarkable given that more than half of all primary schools do not have a general purposes room. This makes physical education weather dependent and makes a nonsense of calls for schools to provide daily PE lessons".
She says there is no doubt that many children's diets are dominated by junk food with a high-sugar content, but that the government has consistently failed to take on the food industry in any practical way.
Ms Dineen also says that more needs to be done to facilitate walking or cycling to school, such as the provision of footpaths and cycle lanes.
"Resourcing schools to fully implement the physical education curriculum and ensuring that every child has enough space to run safely during school break times, would be a good place for politicians to start to address the problem.
"The Department does not fund physical education equipment in schools. Neither does it fund activities such as swimming and outdoor pursuits, which it has included on the curriculum. Parents in Ireland pay for these activities or fundraise to provide them."
John Irwin, assistant general secretary of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS), asserts that second-level schools are cognisant of their responsibilities and already practice a lot of what is recommended in the latest circular.
As examples, he says many consult with their student council on ways to promote healthy lifestyles and many also only allow the sale of water, rather than high-sugar drinks.
Mr Irwin says a real problem is the lack of proper canteen facilities in schools, even in those that are newly built.
"There is no provision in the Department of Education's Schedule of Accommodation for a kitchen where meals can be produced," he says.
'My kids are always on the go since they started Super Troopers'
Super Troopers, an initiative in primary schools, supported by Laya Healthcare, encourages parents and children to treat the task of daily physical activity with the same importance as homework.
Eoin Maloney, resource teacher at Caherconlish NS, Co Limerick. says each student is given an activity journal with suggestions for games and healthy eating ideas, and must complete 10-15 minutes of exercise at home.
He says it's been a big "eye-opener" for him. " I would have been awful for giving the odd sweet as a reward in class, but now you look to the journal and do a movement break or offer blueberries instead."
Caherconlish pupils Jack, 12, Lucy, 10, and Emma Carroll, 7, have been taking part since September.
"I've seen the difference, they're constantly on the go," says their father, Johnny.
He often finds the kids stretching and doing activities like the penguin shuffle together in the living room. Johnny and their mother Colette may even join in the games.
He says the children are eager to add vegetables to their meals, and to have carrot sticks in their school lunches.
Johnny says they love getting active as a family: "It's good to get out of the house and into the fresh air."