Welsh children “graded F” for sedentary lifestyles

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Health & Social Care Committee
Physical Activity of Children & Young People (pdf)
Published: 7th March 2019

“We have heard perhaps some of the starkest evidence yet that we are facing a national crisis in our children’s health. The evidence supporting the need to teach Fundamental Motor Skills at an early age is compelling and there is real concern that vital physical activity is being squeezed out by other priorities in our schools.


“But of course, it’s not just about schools. Physical inactivity is a national problem that affects us all, and requires a cross-departmental commitment from the Welsh Government to tackle it.”
– Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

1. Secondary school children display abnormally high levels of sedentary behaviour

The guidelines laid down by the chief medical officers of the home nations state that under-18s should take part in at least 60 minutes of “moderate” physical activity a day and at least several sessions of “vigorous” physical activity (such as strength-building exercises) per week.

The available figures differed from each other but showed the same trends.

Sport Wales say 48% of young people meet physical activity guidelines, while the Welsh Government say that while 51% of all 5-17 year olds meet the guidelines, amongst secondary school pupils (11-17 year olds), only 14-17% of children do so. There was little information on the under-5s.

59% of children used electronic devices for at least 2 hours or more on a weekday, while 80% spent at least two hours sitting on weekdays – rising to 87% at weekends. The situation is so bad, Welsh children were graded “F” in a report on the general state of physical activity.

They didn’t do much better on active travel, being graded “D-“; just 44% of primary school pupils and 33% of secondary pupils walk or cycle to school.

Slovenia and Finland were cited as examples of best practice. In Slovenia, all 6-19-year-olds are measured on motor skills and children receive 226 hours a year of in-school PE – whether formal PE lessons or elective sports. In Finland, their strategy includes reducing the amount of “sitting time” for pupils, longer breaktimes and opening school sports facilities for use by the community.

Public Health Wales told the Committee that being active “was no longer the norm” and it was important for parents, not just schools, to instil exercise in their children’s’ daily lives

2. The Welsh Government have the right idea, but PE is being squeezed out of the curriculum by schools

The Welsh Government have introduced a number of in-school programmes to boost physical activity, including 5×60, Dragon Sport and Daily Mile (primary schools running, walking or jogging for at least 15 minutes a day). The latter was deemed “achievable” because it doesn’t cost anything and the target was realistic.

The two main problems identified by witnesses were funding and time pressures. Schools were unsure how programmes like 5×60 could be maintained with cuts to school budgets, but the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) pointed to an additional £30million invested in school sport between 2001-2016.

While there’s a recommendation for all pupils to receive at least 2 hours a week of PE in schools, the target isn’t mandatory; it’s often dropped in Years 10-11 to be replaced with additional lessons in core subjects as part of GCSE preparations. A similar thing has happened to breaktimes.

A number of witnesses (though not teaching unions) supported extending the school day to 4:30 pm.

Others ideas put before the Committee include a £35-per-child, per-year “SKIP” (Successful Kinaesthetic Instruction for Preschoolers) programme to train teachers, teaching assistants and parents about the importance of motor skills in child development. Former weightlifter, Ray Williams, suggested 3×40 minute fitness sessions a week from the age of 5 and a “fitness passport” – which he hoped would turn exercise as habitual as brushing teeth.

3. There are a clear and ever-present gender and inclusivity gaps (but things have improved)

A running theme in this inquiry and others in the past (I’ve been around long enough to remember the last several times the Senedd – and Tanni Grey-Thompson – looked at this: Fat of the Land, Physical Literacy, Off the Bench), is a difference in attitude between boys and girls as well as a lack of inclusivity for the disabled.

The 2018 schools survey showed similar proportions of boys (50%) and girls (46%) taking part in sport three or more times a week – which is a sign the gender gap is closing. However, while primary school pupils were equally likely to enjoy PE regardless of gender, at secondary school, 64% of boys enjoyed PE compared to 45% of girls – body image issues being cited as the main reason behind the difference.

There were calls to move away from specific sports being stereotyped as “male” or “female”, with boys predominantly playing rugby and football and girls netball and hockey; though this was said to cut both ways, with boys not being able to take part in dance classes or netball.

There are signs of improvement amongst disabled children too, with 45% of disabled children taking part in sport at least 3 times a week compared to 48% amongst the non-disabled. Disability Sport Wales did, however, flag up specific issues such as cost, availability and accessibility of disabled sports.

The biggest gap in participation was caused by deprivation. In 2018, 42% of children who receive free school meals were said to be “hooked on sport” compared to 55% of non-FSM pupils.

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