FAT ; How the National Obsession Is Coming into the Classroom Adults Fret over Weight and Body Shape, and Now Every Child in School Is to Be Weighed for Obesity. Experts Fear This Will Only Encourage Bullying and Eating Disorders
Francis Elliott and Megan Waitkoff, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The letters are starting to land on doormats already. "Dear Parent," they begin, "next week school nurses will be coming to school to weigh and measure the height of your child."
Barbara Richardson-Todd is readying herself for a frenetic month. "We've got about three or four weeks to weigh and measure 10,000 children," says the senior nurse in charge of collecting obesity data on Suffolk's primary school children. She would have had longer, she says, but there is a national shortage of Government- approved scales caused by this summer's mass weigh-in.
Almost without publicity, health officials have been preparing an extraordinary and controversial data-collection exercise. The Department of Health wants a detailed "fat map" of England's children. Within months we will know the most obese school in Britain, the skinniest, and every calibration in between.
The measurements are needed because the Government set a target to reduce the year-on-year increase in obesity in children under 11 by 2010, but has no standard figures to measure its progress. Ministers have decided that from next year parents of obese children will be told the results in an attempt to shock them into taking more responsibility for their children's size.
That decision, taken in secret last week, overrules the Government's own Children's Commissioner as well as some child- health experts, who fear that such a screening programme could do more harm than good. Not only will it increase bullying, they say, there is a limited amount that can be done to make fat children thinner.
Ministers, however, stung by criticism that efforts to curb childhood obesity are stalled, have decided it's time to tell parents the truth about their children. Although the food industry, advertisers and school dinner ladies all have their part to play, until parents wake up to the problem nothing will change, they say.
In all likelihood, the "fat map" that emerges from the weigh-in will match closely race and class demographics: working-class children are more likely to be overweight, as are black girls.
"Girls from black and Afro-Caribbean communities are more likely to be obese than some of their counterparts," Dr Fiona Adshead, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told MPs this month.
But the sensitivities of weighing and measuring more than a million primary school children in two months are not limited to race and class.
"The little ones don't mind much," says Ms Richardson-Todd. Just as in measuring eyesight, school nurses play pirates to get children to wear eye-patches so they make a game out of getting on the scales, she says. "The 10- and 11-year-olds are more tricky. They are becoming body conscious, so we see them one at a time."
In one pilot project in Birmingham, the older children are weighed and measured behind a screen by teaching assistants as part of their maths class. It is a "de-medicalisied" model that other schools are being urged to follow - and is designed to reduce the stigmatisation of fatter children.
Indeed, the Government's own Children's Commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, was so worried about what children would make of being measured that he commissioned research on the issue.
Reporting to MPs, health officials admitted they had found that some children feared they would be bullied as a result.
"Some of the kids, particularly the younger ones, expressed concerns about being measured. What they said is that they might be bullied, and particularly if children already have a reason why they might be bullied," said Dr Adshead.
Psychiatrists worry what sort of messages young children will pick up from the anti-obesity drive. Dr Robin Arnold, of the British Medical Association's psychiatry committee, said: "It may well be justified in public health terms but one wonders what it will do to rates of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa in the future. …