The importance of health and well-being to children and young people
Children want to grow up feeling happy, healthy and well. In my last big survey, The Big Ask, in 2021, children spoke about wanting good physical health, and younger children in particular spoke about wanting to live healthy lives.
I am now going round the country again asking them what they want politicians to prioritise for children ahead of the next general election as part of The Big Ambition. Whether I am in the south-west, the Midlands or the north-east the same issues keep coming up again and again about mental health as well as physical health. About there not being a distinction between the two. They have a different language and a different articulation of health than adults sometimes do. And that is why it is so important to listen to children and young people.
One 15-year-old girl said that there should be more sports for everyone. The idea of more youth clubs and more provision for young people so they can be more active outdoors more often is also supported by parents who are completing the survey for younger children and those with special needs.
Over the last few years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children experiencing mental health problems. NHS surveys show that before the pandemic, in 2017, 1 in 9 children had a probable mental health disorder. That has now jumped to 1 in 5.
It’s very clear that mental health must remain a focus, but we must also remember the importance of physical health and ensuring that children can take part in physical activity as well as being able to eat healthy and nutritious and delicious food.
Government data shows that far too many children across England are overweight or obese. We need to make sure that access to healthy food is accessible – we all have a role to play in ensuring that children are able to live a healthy and this should begin early in a child’s life.
With this early support in mind, I was pleased to see DHSC’s campaign last year with advice about weaning babies in a way that establishes these habits early. For us to see real impact we need to make sure a robust health visiting service is working closely with a Family Hub in every area to give parents the support they need. A further roll-out of Family Hubs was something I called for in my independent Family Review.
Schools must also be a key part of this focus on wellbeing and healthy eating. During term time, schools play a key role in offering healthy, nutritious meals, including free school meals. I want to see more schools offering breakfast clubs – not available in all schools currently – so that every child can get a healthy breakfast to kickstart the school day. For both their learning and their health.
There are over 24,000 schools in England, of which only about 2,700 were participating the Breakfast Club Programme in March 2023 (63 per cent of these were primary) although the scheme is only open to schools when enough pupils are from a low-income family. Many more schools will be offering breakfasts because they know it is the right thing to do.
Early this year I commissioned a nationally representative survey of 3,593 children aged 8 to 17 in England. They told me that breakfast clubs are among the things they look forward to at school – 8% of primary aged children looked forward to their breakfast club, which is notable given the minority of schools that currently participate in the programme. So,it’s good for learning and health and attendance!
In The Big Ask I asked children what they needed to have happy and successful lives. One child wrote:
“Good and fresh food in the canteen. Free school uniforms, free meals at school and also during school holidays.”
– Girl, aged 16.
During the school holidays, I also want to see the government build on the success of the Holiday Activities Fund (HAF). Holiday activities provide cultural and social enrichment, wrap-around childcare, and access to healthy food over the holidays. There is also strong evidence to suggest that children who attend summer schools make up to two months additional academic progress. This programme is available in all areas of England for school aged children who receive free school meals, and some other groups of children.
I would like to see the government build on the success of this scheme. The programme’s evaluation found that almost 30 per cent of all children eligible for free school meals attended the programme in summer 2021. As part of the Big Ask, I called on the government to increase the participation by schools in this programme and I would like to see the government roll out more places for disadvantaged young people.
Mental and physical health issues are two of the very key challenges facing this generation of children, so it is essential that there is an ambitious plan to ensure that all children are able to access the support they need to grow up physically and mentally healthy.
Tackling childhood illnesses including obesity must be strategically prioritised by the Government. One opportunity to do this which I welcome is through the Government’s Major Conditions Strategy to prevent cardiovascular disease and other major conditions later in life.
Children tell me all the time that they want to be healthy, happy and able to live a full life. It’s down to all of us to come together to help them to achieve that.
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