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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 12:31 GMT
How to defuse the obesity time bomb
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

Kirsty Stringer with K-Ci
The club encourages pupils and their parents to cook healthy food
With at least one in three children leaving primary school obese, weight is clearly a pressing issue for England's schools.

Not only are very overweight children hurtling towards a life shortened by disease, experts say they are more likely to disengage from their schooling.

A range of strategies to tackle the issue, including stringent changes to what schools can serve in their canteens, have so far failed to reduce the size of the problem.

If anything, school food has become so healthy, that many argue this particular campaign has backfired.

Back in the autumn, Ofsted found numbers of pupils taking school dinners had fallen in the majority of schools it surveyed since new guidelines were introduced. In some, school meal take-up fell by as much as a quarter.

When I finally got them out there on the school playing field someone kindly shouted; 'Look out - here comes an earthquake'
Dean Horridge

The latest attempt involves giving the tools to cook healthy food to children themselves, by making cooking lessons compulsory for 11 to 14-year-olds.

But if the parents who cook at home do not know what makes a balanced diet, the lessons are not worth much.

Children at Buckland St Mary Church of England Primary, near Chard in Somerset, are taught the basics of cookery at a much earlier age at an afterschool club.

And crucially, says the parent organiser of the Let's Get Cooking Club Jo Salter, families and the wider community are involved.

Rachel, whose son Josh and daughter Katie have both attended the club, said: "They stick their recipes in a book and bring them home and explain what they did.

"It has meant we have bought and tried things that we don't normally buy.

"It's definitely useful, especially for those people who do rely more on ready prepared foods."

'Home life'

Eight-year-old Katie said: "It's good because it's all about healthy eating and having a balanced diet - it's better than eating food like crisps and chocolate."

But can simply learning to cook a repertoire of healthy dishes alter the mindset of a child used to eating double their daily calories in one meal?

For children who are already severely overweight, a much more holistic approach may be needed to tackle the very deep-seated problems that lead to and are produced by obesity.

Former PE teacher Dean Horridge realised that a child's home life has a very big part to play in their size - and it's not just the type and quantity of food they are given.

Rob and Dean
Emotional support was a big factor in the scheme's success

He devised a programme of after school clubs, called Fitter Kids, which was initially funded by and the subject of a Channel 4 documentary series with former England footballer Ian Wright.

Schools refer children who are obese, or at risk of becoming so, to the clubs. Here they get nutritional advice, are given exercise goals and try a different sport every week.

By the end of the 20-week programme, the eight 14-year-olds on this first programme in Barnet had lost an average of 8.5lbs and improved their fitness by 140%.

And it is not just the children who are encouraged to get fitter and healthier - their families are too.

But crucially those same family members, whose insensitive comments can be so damaging, are banned from the training ground sidelines.

'Turning point'

"These children's lives are all about negativity - it's all about people saying they are fat and unfit," says Mr Horridge.

"So it's all about making these children feel that they've achieved something and that they can change and that this change is sustainable."

Mr Horridge said it took weeks' of encouragement to get the youngsters actually out in the open because many were too self-conscious to even go outside let alone exercise in public.

"When I finally got them out on the school playing field, someone kindly shouted; 'Look out - here comes an earthquake.'

He says the children visibly sank down, so he said to them: "We've got a choice - we can all walk back into the changing rooms or we can face these kids and be confident that we are trying to do something about our situation."

He explained that his programme would not be able to stop people making cruel comments, but it could help them learn how to deal with them.

The children decided to go for it, and ran laps of a track that would have floored them a few weeks earlier.

"It was a turning point in their self confidence. From that point on, these young people decided they could go outside and exercise and that people could see them," Mr Horridge said.

Rob, who was 14, when he got involved with Fitter Kids said the programme changed his life.

Gabbie drinks a healthy orange juice
Gabbie cannot wait for the club to re-open

As a younger boy, had been a keen sportsman but after a local football club closed down he got out of the habit of exercising. At one point he had three televisions in his room.

Now when he goes shopping with his mother, he encourages her to buy healthy food.

One of the Fitter Kids' success stories, Gabbie, now 16, said the support she got from the other members of the group made all the difference.

"We were all in the same position so we all felt comfortable with each other and it was really good the way we supported each other.

"At first people struggled with it but then we were noticing we were doing more than we were being asked to do anyhow."

Gabbie says her confidence went up and by the end of the programme she had trebled her fitness level.

'Back on track'

Rob and Gabbie were so keen on the activities that they and the other group members asked Mr Horridge if they could organise a second club - this time away from the TV cameras.

But after film crews moved away, the programme closed down due to a shortage of funds.

Ministers refused to back the programme and Mr Horridge and his team had to set up a charity to ensure their work could continue.

This left leaving the youngsters without the support they previously had and since then some of them have slipped back.

But the club and these determined youngsters are hoping to get back on track.

Fife pupils 'top obesity table'
06 Mar 08 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
Child obesity 'a major problem'
21 Feb 08 |  Health
Schools told to end meals decline
02 Oct 07 |  Education
Cookery classes to be compulsory
22 Jan 08 |  Education

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