Category Archives: Young People

Deprivation, Childhood Obesity and Walking to School

Crisis? Just what Crisis is it?

It is no doubt still a shocking feature of our society that childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems we face. “Nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school aged five, and this rises to one third by the time they leave aged 11” (NHS Digital). “Our childhood obesity rates mean that the UK is now ranked among the worst in Western Europe” (OECD 2017). Indeed “childhood overweight/obesity rates have increased 10-fold in the past 40 years” (NCD-Ris).

The actual figures for obesity are reported by Rob Noonan (2020a, p. 3) as “32.4% among the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 20.9% in the least deprived“. So even among the most well off, there is a significant level of childhood obesity. Surely we need to ask, what’s their excuse?

One might think that such a potential crisis would engender a non-partisan response from even a Conservative government widely recognised as one of the most right-wing for a generation. Of course, though, that is not to be. The Government’s response in their “Childhood Obesity Plan for Action, gives us four areas where they will focus their resources:

  • Sugar Reduction
  • Calorie Reduction
  • Advertising and Promotions
  • Schools

In particular:

We intend to ban price promotions, such as buy one get one free and multi-buy offers or unlimited refills of unhealthy foods and drinks in the retail and out of home sector through legislation, consulting before the end of 2018.

We intend to ban the promotion of unhealthy food and drink by location (at checkouts, the end of aisles and store entrances) in the retail and out of home sector through legislation, consulting before the end of 2018.

DHSC, p. 10

It is very easy, and effective to demonise the poor; it is a common and constant feature of our media. The narrative is the parents are to blame for feeding their children with sweet, fatty unhealthy foods. They either do not care what they feed their children in order to keep them quiet, or simply are ignorant and do not know about healthy food.

This is the standard ideological tactic of differentiation, and expurgation to create social fragmentation (Thompson, 1991, p. 60-67), and once you recognise this, you start to see it all over. The resulting policy and political response is to tell the poor how to live ( the middle classes). They need to buy different food. They need to exercise more. They need to be better parents. They need to stop driving their children to school and make them walk. But hang on a minute. Aren’t these the undeserving poor, most of whom do not even have a car, (though they could have if they stopped spending on fags and booze).

But surely, it costs nothing to go outside, get exercise, go to the park. Well even that isn’t that easy when you live in a neighbourhood that is one of

the least supportive social and built environments for physical activity. For example, research shows that the most deprived neighbourhoods are perceived by parents as unsafe and have the least access to parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities for physical activity (Noonan et al., 2016).

Noonan, 2020, p. 2

What this narrative refuses to recognise is, that the poor have very little influence or control over their income and those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods are not likely to have the financial resources to support a balanced healthy diet (Jones, Tong, & Monsivais, 2017). Furthermore they are unlikely to have the resources (time, transport etc), or even the social and cultural to participate in healthy physical activities (Hardy et al., 2010). The real culprits here are the employers paying low poverty wages meaning their employees cannot even afford to feed their children in a way even the Government agree is necessary. The supermarket chain Morrisons is well aware of the effect on the retail sector:

Today, research reveals that the UK’s lowest income homes are being forced to spend a disproportionate amount of their weekly expenditure on food shopping. The average household in the UK spends 11 per cent of its weekly expenditure on food. However, 20 percent of households (those on lower incomes) are actually forced to spend proportionately at least 30 per cent more of their current weekly food spend than the national average.

(Morrisons, 2012)

Oxfam, in collaboration with the Child Poverty Action Group, put it this way:

Whilst the level of food poverty is worrying enough, what is of greater concern is the exponential growth in the numbers of people across the UK who are experiencing real hunger and hardship. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of food poverty is the rising number of people who depend on emergency food aid.

Cooper & Dumpleton, 2013

But of course, if your entire upbringing has been one of privilege, it is very easy to not have a clue what it is like living in poverty. You might never have met or interacted with really poor people, (and probably don’t want to, other than to knock on their door and ask for their vote every few years). You might even go to the ludicrous extent of suggesting obese working class and poor children should walk to school in order to get fit. You are unlikely to even know, that most already do.

Children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England were most likely to commute to and from school actively but were at greatest risk of overweight/obesity and all unhealthy behaviour indicators. Active school commuting alone is unlikely to be enough to prevent and reduce inequalities and prevalence of childhood overweight/obesity in deprived neighbourhoods.

Noonan, Rob, 2020a, p. 5

So the demonisation of the lazy, work-shy proletariat, needs resisting. Children are becoming obese because they are abused by a political and economic system because we have moved into a scenario where the poor are working but being paid low wages on insecure hours.

The number of people trapped in poverty in working families has risen by over one million in the three years to 2016/17. This means almost three million children are now locked in poverty despite living in a working family. The situation is set to worsen further in future. This is simply not right

Joseph Rowntree, 2018

The rest of us bail out the employers by topping up low wages, and our children face unhealthy futures with restricted life expectancy, simply because … they really are expendable.

Indeed, it is not right.


Cooper, Niall and Dumpleton, Sarah (2013). Walking the breadline. The scandal of food poverty in 21st century britain. Oxfam/Child Poverty Action Group.

Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) (2018) Childhood obesity: a plan for action, Chapter 2.

Hardy, Louise; Kelly, Bridget; Chapman, Karthy; King, Lesley and Farrell, Louise (2010) Parental perceptions of barriers to children’s participation in organised sport in Australia. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 46, 197–203.

Jivraj, Stephren (2020) Are self-reported health inequalities widening by income? An analysis of British pseudo birth cohorts born, 1920–1970. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. doi:doi:10.1136/jech-2019-213186

Jones, Nicholas; Tong, Tammy and Monsivais, Pablo (2017). Meeting UK dietary
recommendations is associated with higher estimated consumer food costs: An
analysis using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey and consumer expenditure
data, 2008–2012
. Public Health Nutrition, 21, 948–956.

Morrisons (2012). Poorest budgets eaten up by food. Retrieved from

NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC). (2017) Worldwide trends in body-mass
index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: A pooled analysis
of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128⋅9 million children,
adolescents, and adults
. Lancet, 390, 2627–2642.

NHS Digital. (2017) National Child Measurement Programme 2016/17

Noonan, Rob; Boddy, Lynne; Knowles, Zoe and Fairclough, Stuart (2016). Cross-sectional associations between high-deprivation home and neighborhood environments, and health-related variables among Liverpool children. BMJ Open, 6, e008693.

Noonan, Rob (2018) Prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in Liverpool
between 2006 and 2012: Evidence of widening socioeconomic inequalities
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15, 2612.

Noonan, Rob (2020a) To what extent do unhealthy behaviour indicators explain the neighbourhood deprivation gradient in overweight among 11-year-old English children? Population Health, 10(100541).

Noonan, Rob (2020b) Walking to school is not enough to prevent obesity, The Conversation.

Noonan, Rob and Fairclough, S. (2018). Is there a deprivation and maternal education
gradient to child obesity and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity? Findings from
the Millennium cohort study
. Pediatric Obesity, 13, 458–464.

OECD (2017) Health at a glance 2017: OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Joseph Rowntree (9018) Budget 2018: tackling the rising tide of in-work poverty.

Sullivan, Rory (2020) Poor Britons have worse health than generation born a century ago. The Independent, 22nd January 2020.

Thompson, John (1991) Ideology and Modern Culture. Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication. Stanford: Stamford University Press.

“Pass The Parcel”

{Above image created by freepik –}

This post has been updated on 27/12/19.

“I feel like a parcel getting moved around all the time, getting opened up and sent back and moved on to somewhere else.”

Teenage girl, in care over 100 miles from home

I am writing this on Boxing Day, 2019 at time of year we claim is for families to get together. We are confronted with pictures of happy families sitting around a dinner table or the TV, just enjoying each others’ company. Yet for many children, Christmas is not a time for family. The NSPCC report:

In 2016/17  there were approximately 96,000 looked after children in the UK. The total number of looked after children in the UK has increased every year since 2010. In the last five years the population of looked after children in the UK has increased by 5%.


These figures differ somewhat from the Office for National Statistics official figures, of 78,150, in 2018 – the majority of which (almost 75%) come from ethnically white backgrounds. What isn’t contested, is that this figure has been steadily rising. (I have not yet compared this rise against the rise in the age related population however).

A very rough calculation (as accurate figures are hard to come by) puts the percentage of children in care at around 6-8% of children under 18. A very crude averaging out would mean an average of 2 children per class of 30 children.

The election of the Conservatives in 2010 set off a stringent policy of austerity, where the disadvantaged were forced to pay for the excesses and recklessness of the financiers who caused the 2008 economic meltdown. in just eight years the Conservative administration shut down 1000 Surestart Children’s centres.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, has just (December 2019) published a report on the experiences of children in the care system, titled: “Pass the Parcel. Children posted around the care system“. in their report they argue:

There are over 30,000 looked after children living ‘out of area’ in England.This is 41% of all children in care and has risen by 13% since 2014. Over 11,000 of these children are more than 20 miles from what they would call home, with over 2,000 further than a hundred miles away.

Now 40% of 8% is about 3%. So on average there will be around one pupil per class in this situation, often placed miles from home “simply because there is nowhere suitable for them to live locally(Children’s Commissioner, p. 2). Why? because cash-strapped local authorities do not have enough places for children to live meaning many of them “end up going to live in children’s homes run by private companies, often operating in cheaper and less ‘desirable’ parts of the country“. The experience of a Conservative government turns out to be a nightmare for those very children who are rarely seen and never heard.

Children living far away are likely to have more complicated and fragmented histories. They are more likely to be older children, more likely to be living in children’s homes than children placed in their local areas, and more likely to have experienced multiple moves while in care. Being so far away from their hometowns can be another trauma for children who have already had difficult upbringings. More than half of children (52%) living out of their local area have special educational needs and a quarter (24%) have social, emotional and mental health identified as their primary need. These are therefore often children who struggle to process change and need routine and consistency to stay calm and content. They may take a long time to build trust with adults and feel settled, and yet this group are at risk of chronic instability at the hands of the care system.

Children’s Commissioner, p. 2

In the mainstream media, we get told of the difficulties these “wayward” and “deviant” children pose to services: the police, NHS and education services. In my world – the world of education – teachers struggle to respond adequately in a system that is under resourced and unconcerned. The Conservatives establish a right wing “Behaviour Czar” with all the, no doubt intended, imagery that language conjures up of the brutality of the Romanovs.

What the Children’s Commissioner report provides is a narrative of the experiences of the children going through this experience, in order to “shine a light on the experiences of these children as victims of a system that is letting them down, not as ‘problems’ for the system“. Further evidence of the systematic denial of the needs of these vulnerable children was reported in The Guardian also on Boxing Day, by Sarah Marsh and Pamela Duncan in article titled “Revealed: councils paid inadequate care homes £2.3m to house children“. They identified more evidence, if indeed any was needed, of the inhumanity behind the right wing strategy of marketisation of the care system pursued by the Conservative Government.

One result is local councils are sending children into care homes that simply “do not provide a good standard of care“, but of course that in itself is of little consequence, because these inadequate ohmes are earning millions of pounds for their abuse – because that is what it surely is – of many vulnerable young children.

 Ofsted report on children’s social care in England and identify 78 providers whose properties were listed as being inadequate or in need of improvement. Their framework for Social Care Common Inspection framework (SCCIF) – Children’s Homes describes the process of inspection and their Main Findings are online. The Guardian report:

Some 58 children were placed in such homes by at least 23 local authorities in the following three-month period, handing more than £2.3m to failing providers, according to freedom of information responses and analysis of councils’ published expenditure.The figures could be much higher as a substantial number of councils did not respond, some would not say how many children on the grounds of data protection, and some would not say how much money was spent on providers citing commercial sensitivity.

Sarah Marsh and Pamela Duncan, The Guardian, 26th December 2019

The needs of these children are secondary to the profit to be made by private companies – some of which are identified by the Guardian. For any teacher, it is essential Christmas reading. Start here, and be prepared to cry.

“I’d never heard of this area.” – Teenage boy in care, around 75 miles from home

“I feel isolated. I don’t even know where I am … you feel like you have no-one” – Teenage girl in care

“I don’t even know where I am on the map” – Teenage girl in care, around 80 miles from ‘home

“I never unpack cos I know I’ll be passed on somewhere else in a few weeks” – Teenage girl in care

Children’s Commissioner

Merry Christmas