Pause for thought… Food for thought  

Susan Elkin puts the case for arts teachers to encourage students to embrace healthy eating and lifestyle.

Hardly a day goes by without a hand-wringing news item about worsening obesity and the trouble it is likely to cause if it isn’t already doing so: not least unaffordable NHS costs.

In the last month alone, we’ve heard about a proposal to shrink pizza size and content in restaurants to meet a calorie cap and the suggestion that GPs should run cookery classes. Then there’s a primary school in Lowestoft which has introduced under-desk pedalling to ensure children get exercise and a recommendation from the Royal College that children be weighed annually in schools.

And so it goes on – and on. There is a very serious problem and Britain tops the scales in Europe. Government statistics published in April indicate that in 2016/17, 28% of 2 to 15-year-olds were overweight or obese. One in five Year 6 children are overweight or obese. Over a quarter of adults are obese. And obesity, as anyone who isn’t living on a desert island knows, leads to Type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular illness and a lot of other hideous conditions as well as being implicated in some forms of cancer.

So what are we doing about it in schools? I remember around 1990 having a major fall out with my then Headteacher because she was selling advertising space on the student canteen walls – for confectionary. I told her this was scandalously, immorally wrong but she insisted that she had to do it to augment the head’s discretionary pot known back then as “school fund”. I hardly need tell you that she was herself massively obese, as was her deputy who supported her. Well I suppose we’ve progressed a bit because no school would do that now. As so often, I was ahead of my time. (Ask me sometime about my campaign to outlaw smoking in the main staff room in the same school).

What worries me most about the current obesity “crisis” is that on the one hand you have the authorities despairing about the future health of the nation, while on the other you have a huge politically correct lobby which doesn’t want obesity mentioned in case it upsets the person concerned or triggers an eating disorder. And liberals advising fat people to “celebrate their curves” and other such nonsense do not help at all.

Normalising an unhealthy condition usually (but not always – yes there are glandular conditions and the like but they’re rare) caused by lifestyle is not a good idea – and that goes for schools as well as the rest of society. It is not good to be fat.

Now of course that doesn’t mean that a child or young person with a weight problem should be stigmatised. But it does mean that he or she and, probably, the family should be helped. Stick-thin, of course, is not healthy either but we somehow have to winch perceptions back to what constitutes normal size. And as for eating disorders and the struggle for perfection, well I used to work in a girls’ boarding school and have seen the harm that can ensue at first hand. Obviously, we have to be very careful not to encourage students into “slimming diets” because that’s where eating disorders often start.

Ink Pellet is an arts magazine and many teacher readers will be encouraging their students to participate in the arts, particularly drama. And perhaps sometimes we could use drama to get young people to think and learn about body shape and healthy lifestyles – because of course, for most people, maintaining an appropriate weight is about sensible, informed eating and exercise rather than any silly faddy diet.

Or we could teach cookery – not very easy now since most secondary schools stripped out their Home Economics suites and retired or retrained the staff decades ago, but we could certainly talk to our charges about food. Arts teachers probably get more opportunities for informal discussion than their colleagues in, say science and maths. Let’s get away from the notion that healthy eating is complicated or boring, for a start.

And how about teaching by example? An obese or overweight teacher is hardly leading the way healthily any more than a chubby national health worker is. A retired GP friend told me recently that the most influential thing he ever did for his patients was to lose his own excess weight thereby averting Type 2 diabetes which was threatening. Afterwards lots of patients, he says, took the line: “Well if you can do it …”. It won’t be a popular view, but I think teachers have a similar responsibility. Perhaps that’s what I should have said all those years ago to my head and her deputy, who probably weighed over thirty stone between them – but I needed the job.