According to The Times, “schools across England could be required to weigh and measure their pupils every year… the progress schools make in helping children to maintain a healthy weight could be examined when Ofsted carries out inspections.”
It’s hard to take issue with schools carrying out a few routine measurements of their students each year, if the purpose is to create a national picture with the most accurate data. But data around childhood obesity is rarely used in an honest or enlightening way.
In fact, the numbers are very often manipulated, and used to cart out a host of intrusive policies, in the name of combating a false epidemic.
As my colleague Christopher Snowdon has illustrated, the “arbitrary” way in which childhood obesity is calculated places thousands of children in the “obese” category who don’t belong there.
Grandstanding claims – such that one in five children are obese when entering secondary school – are “statistical inventions” turned out by a computer model, and considered “factual” without any back-up from physical examinations.
Compare the official obesity figures for adults with the official figures for children, and the inflated nature of the data for the latter group becomes obvious.
As Snowdon notes, “we have to believe that obesity rises rapidly in secondary school, affecting nearly a quarter of children, before suddenly plummeting to barely a tenth once they become adults”. Or, we have to admit that there’s something badly wrong with the way childhood obesity is calculated.
Who benefits from over-egging childhood obesity rates? As usual, powerful people with killjoy aspirations are the most likely to spread bad data far and wide.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver relies on inflated statistics to push his regressive policies, like taxes on sugar and advertising bans. London mayor Sadiq Khan cites childhood obesity as an excuse to create zoning bans for fast-food outlets, despite no persuasive evidence that such a move would have any impact on people’s weight.
Having essentially won the smoking debate, Public Health England is looking for any excuse to turn “Big Food” into the new “Big Tobacco”. Even these fresh proposals around Ofsted include intrusive “home visits” for children deemed overweight.
It is clear how such policy proposals make it harder for adults – especially poorer adults – to live their lives freely; it is not clear how they help tackle obesity, especially among children who actually suffer from it.
If the main goal is genuinely to keep children in good health, concentration should be put on physical exercise and preventative healthcare.
A yearly visit to the GP’s office is when updates and guidance should be given to parents about their children’s weight. Shifting private health issues into public life, whether that be schools or shops, is more likely to result in nanny state pandering and unhealthy obsessions with food than it is in evidenced-based policymaking. Let school remain a place where young boys and girls learn about numbers – but not the ones that show up on a scale.
This article was first published in City AM.