In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

Assembly business continues, check the business diary for informatio on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 11 June 2009


Inquiry into Obesity

Department of Education

11 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Thomas Buchanan 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mr John McCallister


Ms Jill Fitzgerald ) 
Ms Louise Warde Hunter ) Department of Education 
Mr Alan McMullan )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs O’Neill):

I welcome Louise Warde Hunter, Alan McMullan and Jill Fitzgerald, of the Department of Education, to the Health Committee. I invite you to make a presentation; the members may have some questions afterwards.

Ms Louise Warde Hunter (Department of Education):

There is much that I would like to say, but I appreciate that the Committee is short of time. Would a 15-minute presentation be reasonable?

The Deputy Chairperson:

We allow up to an hour for each evidence session; that includes your presentation and members’ questions.

Ms Warde Hunter:

Let me know if I am too long-winded on any area, so that I can move on to another. I want to do it in whatever way suits you best.

Thank you for asking us to give evidence as part of your inquiry into obesity. We share the Committee’s concern at the rise of obesity and especially childhood obesity, which is the main locus of the Department of Education. The Department welcomes the inquiry and we hope that we can play our part in the shared drive to stop and ultimately reverse the trend. Alan McMullan is a former policy leader on school meals and the school food policy, which will be launched in September. Jill Fitzgerald is health and physical well-being co-ordinator for the Department. My background is early years, and I am new to this area. Forgive me if I read from my script.

We understand that health-related policies span the whole of the Department, from what is taught in school to the design of schools, from school-based weighting and the measuring of programmes to the medical needs of individual children. We have a good broad knowledge of policies that contribute to obesity prevention. We will do our best to answer your questions. If there are questions that, between the three of us, we cannot tackle, we will take that away and give you formal written replies.

You have seen the supplementary paper that was issued lately and which summarised the Department of Education’s vision and priorities. I want to make the connections between what we are trying to do and obesity.

The Department of Education’s vision is to ensure that every learner fulfils his or her potential at each stage of development. In order to help us achieve that, our emphasis must be on learning and providing the highest quality of education for every child in a way that helps them transcend the barriers that they might experience in life. We are trying to raise standards for all and close the gap between the highest and the lowest attainments. However, there are also other important areas: how we develop the education workforce, improve the learning environment and transform education administration. Over the next 10 minutes, I will try to demonstrate to the Committee how all those points are linked to health and well-being and, in particular, to the issue of young people and obesity.

Basic skills such as literacy and numeracy are essential to good physical and mental health. Last year, 47% of young people did not achieve a grade C or above in English and maths, and therefore our focus on raising standards is clearly important. In the revised curriculum, young people are not considered solely with reference to the qualifications that they acquire at age 16 or 18; we think of their holistic needs. They must be equipped to play their part in society, to be economically active and to participate as citizens. We must also equip them with an understanding of how to make healthy choices and adopt healthy lifestyles. We do that in the curriculum primarily, though not exclusively, through personal development. That includes making physical education compulsory until age 16 and home economics compulsory until age 14 for all students — that includes boys and boys’ schools.

We recognise that the gap between the highest and lowest attainment of qualifications is even greater among socially disadvantaged pupils. I am sure that the Committee is familiar with that; I will not rehearse that. We know that low attainment can have an effect not only on young people’s employment or further education prospects, but on their future health and that of any family that they might have. We want to demonstrate that we are not just in the business of equipping young people to get qualifications, but equipping them in a much broader educational sense for all the issues that they will face in life.

I want to highlight the extended-schools programme. It has a number of key aims around reducing underachievement and improving the life chances of children and young people from disadvantaged communities in tandem with the concept of fostering health, well-being and social inclusion. The extended-schools programme plays a significant role in promoting healthy lifestyles. Last year, approximately 700 extended-schools programmes were run in 450 schools in Northern Ireland, linked to the healthy lifestyles concept through breakfast clubs, after-school schemes and youth sport and leisure activities.

We also work on pupils’ emotional health and well-being. Nowadays we talk more and more about resilience. Young people who experience poor emotional well-being, for whatever reason, and who have not developed the ability to deal with life’s challenges, cannot possibly fulfil their learning potential. To support that, we have introduced counselling in post-primary schools as a priority. We know that in times of stress, some people react by overeating. For many young people, that can spiral into eating disorders. Emotional well-being is fundamentally connected to physical well-being, and overeating is one issue that we can begin to address through school counselling.

The education workforce is vital to securing and improving the education outcomes that young people need. It is about having the right people on the ground to address the issues that are pertinent to the Committee’s inquiry. The Department’s curriculum advice and support service provides physical literacy co-ordinators to the education and library boards as well as running programmes such as curriculum support in primary schools. All those programmes require professionals to understand and be equipped for delivery in schools. That is connected to what we need our teachers to do and how we need to relate to other school staff.

We recognise that the review of public administration has identified the need for radical reform of education. Rather like the health sector, we have tried to reshape the Department of Education to place greater emphasis on policy formulation, the strategy for the management of education, monitoring of workforces and systems, and performance. We must look at how we are using public money in a way that supports our key stakeholders — children and young people, and their parents.

In our written submission we have given details of a full programme of work by the Department that is specifically about obesity prevention. I would not dream of teaching my granny how to suck eggs but, as we know, it is about the imbalance between energy in and energy out, which results in undesirable weight gain among young people. There are two areas that I want to concentrate on. The first is about “energy in”, which is to do with food in schools, and the second is about “energy out”, which deals with physical activity.

The Department’s most recent work on food in schools began in 2000. Rather than give members chapter and verse in a laborious way, I will say that the process has evolved through testing the development of a policy and consulting on it, working with nutritionists on healthier menus for school canteens, and working with dietitians. We started off in 2000 and had a public consultation throughout 2001-02. At that point we recognised that we were not turning a small skiff around — it was more like turning a tanker around — and that a more evolutionary and gradual approach to the issue would work best. That has been borne out by the experience across the water, where, post-Jamie Oliver, the snap decision on school menus meant that there was a huge fall-off in the numbers of pupils taking school meals. The revolution meant that young people were not taking as many school meals, and we had the spectacle of the tabloids reporting on mothers feeding their kids burgers through the school gates. That is not what we want to see happening in Northern Ireland. In a way, that is a justification of the more evolutionary approach that we have taken.

Following that consultation, the Department of Education decided to publish nutritional standards in a booklet entitled ‘Catering for Healthier Lifestyles’. The Department also engaged with its partner bodies — the education and library boards and the Health Promotion Agency and Food Standards Agency — on a pilot project that aimed to implement the sorts of standards that had been developed.

In 2004, around 100 schools were identified to pilot the new nutritional standards. That pilot lasted for a year. It was designed to establish pupils’ attitudes to change and how to manage the change across the remaining 1,150 schools. The idea was to test out the new standards. The pilot was fairly successful. The majority of schools and pupils responded very positively, and a number of key conclusions were drawn. The drop-off in the uptake of meals at a time of change was a feature that was noted even then. It was also noted that pupils began to return to the meals service in schools as time passed. The numbers began to rise, though not to the original level. If it was not “chips with everything”, then young people were clearly voting with their feet and perhaps identifying other ways. Other features were that pupils did not like oily fish and certain types of vegetable were not popular. However, from the pilot, the Department and its partner bodies were able to develop a strategy that gave pupils time to become accustomed to new menus in an incremental approach.

Interim standards were introduced to remove less healthy food from menus in a series of stages; to adopt preparation and cooking methods, such as puréeing, that disguised certain vegetables — as a parent at one time of three small children, I recognise such ruses; and to roll it out to manageable tranches of schools to try to get buy-in. It was a more gradual and gentle way of enabling young people to develop their tastes and to access the healthier option.

The Department’s preparations for the first tranche of schools coincided with the Jamie Oliver work, at which point the Treasury came in. As a result of the Treasury’s initiative, Northern Ireland got an additional £3 million to support the increase in the quality of school meals. That funding was aimed at getting high-quality ingredients, investing in equipment, training catering staff, and supporting the communication and marketing plan targeted at our young people. Some national minimum targets were also set for the food element. I am happy to come back to that and to take any questions on it.

We ended up with a rolling programme for the implementation of the new nutritional standards. It began in 2005 and ran to 2007, when all schools under the control of boards had implemented the new nutritional standards. Figures show that, in 2005, before the programme was introduced, the uptake of meals was 52%. That fell slightly and, by the end of 2007, it was about 51%. In October 2008, the meals census suggested that it had dropped by a further 0·5%. Therefore, there was an impact, but it was not the massive drop-off that perhaps other jurisdictions experienced.

Since then, the Department has asked the Educational and Training Inspectorate to look at how schools are performing in this area. The Inspectorate has employed two nutritional associate inspectors to carry out that function. The results have largely been very positive in the first tranche of schools to have been inspected.

As the development and roll-out have progressed, it has become clear that competing sources of food in schools were reducing the impact of the new nutritional standards. Therefore, in order to embed the gains made from the implementation of the standards, the Department has developed what it calls a “whole school” approach to nutrition. That involves addressing a number of issues that impact on childhood nutrition and the food choices that children make in schools. Those include the type of foods that are provided in school meals and the other food that is provided in schools through vending machines, tuck shops, break-time snacks and drinks, breakfast clubs and food brought into schools in packed lunches and snacks. I can bear that one out — I know from personal experience that we are not allowed nuts, due to the risk of anaphylactic shock, but we are also not allowed sweet biscuits or drinks. Other issues addressed included access to food en route to school and at lunchtime, and the quality of the dining environment. There are a range of other issues that span around that, but I just wanted to highlight the ones that children and parents experience most.

The vehicle for achieving the objective of a whole school approach is, as I signalled earlier, the proposed policy that the Department now has on food in schools. The public consultation on that policy is planned to start in September. A final postscript to the bid on food in schools is that, in conjunction with developments relating to the food in schools policy, the Department, along with the Public Health Agency, the Health Department and the University of Ulster, is conducting research into a marketing and promotion campaign designed to support the drive against obesity. The aim of that strategy is to raise awareness of nutrition-based health-related issues and help children and parents make the connection between their present diet and the future consequences for their health.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Education Committee, I mentioned that the Department in re-brigading itself — that is, changing how it is internally structured — is, with the advent of the families and communities directorate that I am responsible for, trying to place a much greater emphasis on its relationship with parents. Therefore, the Department recognises the importance of communication and of gaining the hearts and minds not just of children and young people, but also, critically, those who are looking after them at home, and those who are supporting and influencing them in the community background.

At the other end of the spectrum — the “energy out” end of the equation — there are lots of opportunities for young people to be physically active before, during and after school. For example, there is getting to and from school, which provides an opportunity for children to walk or cycle when it is safe to do so. Indeed, the rural safe routes to schools initiative is a very good example of how a number of different Departments and agencies worked with 18 rural primary schools to put in place school travel plans that allow more children to cycle or walk to school.

During the school day there are also opportunities at lunch and break times for children to run about and be active. Lots of primary schools have playground markings that encourage traditional playground games such as hopscotch, and there is an encouragement for children to get active. However, I think that the big, key role for schools is in teaching children the necessary skills to allow them to be physically active, both during the school day and in their chosen after-school or outside activities. Fundamentally, that is done through the delivery of physical education (PE) in the curriculum.

PE is a separate area of learning in the curriculum, which is compulsory across all key stages. At least two hours of PE per week is recommended, but how schools take that recommendation onboard may vary. However, two hours of quality provision is what the Department, advised by experts, has assessed is required. It allows for the developmental brigading of skills and the gaining of knowledge and understanding in the range of activity areas that make up the PE curriculum.

To meet the recommended two hours, there are developing opportunities through the connected learning associated with the revised curriculum. For example, the Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment has produced ‘Ideas for Connected Learning’ to assist teachers across the different areas of learning. Examples of how activities in PE can actually be used to connect with the rest of the curriculum have been quite important, and those sorts of resources have also been provided to teachers.

The Department has also addressed what we call physical literacy through the fundamental movement skills programme, which provides teachers with continuing professional development on the planning, teaching, learning and assessment of basic physical skills that form the building blocks for children’s active and enjoyable engagement in the activities in the PE curriculum. The PE curriculum also includes opportunities for pupils to develop knowledge, understanding and skills in athletics, dance, games, gymnastics, swimming and outdoors education.

As the Committee knows, the Minister of Education was an active sportswoman earlier in her career, and she has been passionate about sport in schools and about young people being active. Having recognised the importance of developing children’s physical literacy, in the 2007-08 school year she introduced a physical literacy sport programme for the youngest primary-school students. It focused on Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 — P1, P2 and P3. GAA and Irish Football Association coaches are working alongside teachers in some 550 primary schools to help develop the physical literacy of the young people who are taking part. Approximately 13,000 primary-school students take part in the programme each week. The programme is targeted at areas of greatest disadvantage.

Teachers have also been receiving more support from the boards to help them deliver the physical literacy programme on skills for young people, and extra-curricular physical activities are provided to offer children and young people the opportunity to develop their skills in new contexts. That is sometimes about competing with other schools. However, it is important that the majority of children and young people are given the chance to demonstrate positive attitudes to increased opportunities to take part in sport and physical activities. Some of the latest research is saying that girls, in particular, fade out from taking part in PE and physical activity, and there are issues around that and what it can lead to. It is connected to issues relating to weight gain and self-esteem. That brings us back to the connection between physical well-being and emotional and mental well-being.

I apologise if I have been long-winded, but I hope that I have given you some insight into how seriously the Department of Education is taking its role in obesity prevention. We are striving to do a number of things. The focus on healthy lifestyle choices, including the importance of healthy eating and physical activities, is about equipping young people with the capacity to go forward.

Earlier, I mentioned the relationship between the Department and parents. I do not doubt that the development and management of the food in schools policy in the autumn will be an important learning point for us. Schools are taking a lot of positive steps to ensure that children are presented with healthy eating choices when they are at school, and with increased opportunities for quality physical activity.

As head of youth policy, I am not sure how strongly the food in schools policy is being carried into youth settings. If we are doing so well on the notion of healthy choices in school tuck shops, we will need to think about joining up the dots for young people. It should not just be happening between 9.00 am and 3.00 pm; it should also be happening in any youth settings that they have. I will take that up with colleagues in the Department.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your interesting and comprehensive presentation. I know that you are in charge of the early-years strategy, which we hope to see coming forward soon. Are there obesity targets in that? Education is key in giving young people the information to help them make informed choices when they get older. Early intervention will set their habits. Is there anything in particular in that?

Ms Warde Hunter:

I will have to double-check. I have seen so many iterations of my own strategy that I cannot remember what is in it. Early years and the play-based curricula that operate in preschool and P1 and P2 through the foundation curriculum are strongly based on play, including active outdoor play. If we are to have these healthy eating options through the food in schools policy, that will clearly apply in nursery settings as well. As you will know, voluntary playgroups do not have a long enough day in which to afford children a meal. Perhaps it is less of an issue there, but it will not be a diminution of their commitment to provide the healthy options — fruit and toast — as a mid-morning snack. Thank you for your comment; I will take that back and revisit the strategy from that angle to ensure that, if we do not have a clear expression on that, that we will try to express the physical well-being aspect more clearly.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The Department recommends that each child should have two hours of PE each week. That has been raised with the Committee on a few occasions, and Sport NI was also very vocal on the issue. Does physical education form part of the teacher-training programme?

Ms Warde Hunter:

I do not know if that is part of the initial teacher training. I imagine that there might be an element of it.

Ms Jill Fitzgerald (Department of Education):

I cannot give you the exact detail, but there is coverage for primary-school, non-specialist teachers. Specialist PE teachers will receive PE training, and non-specialists who go into the primary-school arena will have an element of PE training.

The Deputy Chairperson:

How is that monitored? Some schools may offer two hours or sometimes more, and other schools may not be meeting that two-hour target. Is that target monitored by the Education and Training Inspectorate?

Ms Warde Hunter:

The inspectorate certainly takes account of that target when it is carrying out inspections. That is the point that I was making about the target being set out in the guidelines that the Department has adopted in relation to the curriculum; it gives schools the autonomy as to how to conduct the curriculum. We are not being prescriptive; we are not saying, for example, that all post-primary schools have to teach French on a Tuesday. That is not the philosophy that we have had about the curriculum, and it is not what schools or teachers want. You are quite right. Our position is that these are guidelines, and an inspection could ask how those guidelines are being followed and whether it is appearing in the school development plan.

Dr Deeny:

I have raised this a few times: is it not the case that schools should have to do this? Sport NI told the Committee about the two-plus-two strategy in England: that is two hours of PE within the curriculum, and two hours outside it. I see it happening in general practice. You mentioned girls who fade out of doing sports. That starts a vicious cycle, because they start to put on weight, and then they do not want to take part in sport. I think that, rather than recommendations and simple guidance, it should be part of a school’s week. I am aware of schools that allow those pupils who are not very good at sport to fall by the wayside. That is what I have been told. Schools do not insist on every child having two hours of physical activity each week. I think that two hours is not enough. Can you not enforce this for the sake of our kids’ health?

Two girls at my practice have told me that they are smoking because it keeps their weight down. I thought, mother of God, is that what they are doing? They have fallen out of the system. One person has told me that there is no interest in sport, so they go for a walk down the town. What is going on here? All schools like to do well in sports, whether it is between schools or on a larger scale, but a large section of our young population are falling by the wayside and not getting the physical activity that they should do.

There is a duty not only on the Health Department and Health Committee, but on the Department of Education, to ensure that schools see physical education as important for development, and that it should be prioritised. I see that in primary care, with girls in particular. Boys seem to keep exercising, but you are correct that girls, as they get older, seem to drift away from exercise. That is a worrying development.

Ms Warde Hunter:

I reiterate that the Department takes an overarching approach to the delivery of the curriculum; as PE is part of the curriculum, the Department has not done anything more than issue guidelines. It is about consistency with the overall approach.

Ms Fitzgerald:

The scenario here is different to that in England where two hours of PE a week has been made compulsory. We are in a scenario where no subject is compulsory for any given time. Therefore, although a subject is compulsory in the curriculum — as PE is — the Department is not in a position to say how much time it should be allotted. To do it for PE would make it different from all other subjects and constrain schools in their teaching of the curriculum.

Dr Deeny:

There is a difference: unlike other subjects, PE has a very positive effect on people’s health. You could make a difference.

Ms Fitzgerald:

Personal development is also a subject that makes a difference to lifestyles, in terms of drugs and alcohol and self-esteem. PE is very important, which is why it is included in the inspections.

Ms Warde Hunter:

There are clearly strong feelings on the issue. I would be happy to take the concerns of Dr Deeny and the wider Committee, if it endorses them, back to the Minister so that she can consider them. It is important for us to conduct that message back.

Mr Buchanan:

Thank you for the presentation. I apologise for missing part of it, but what I did hear was very good.

A change of mindset in children, going on into their parents and families, is required. There is a mindset where people are not geared up to do physical exercise, which must be completely changed. The provision of sport in schools also has to be looked at. There are folk who excel at sport; it is something that is built into them and they are energised about it. However, there is another section of the school who have no interest in sport. Maybe the provision of sport in schools should be divided into two sections; one for those who are energetic and want to get at it and one for those who slide back a bit. Perhaps there could be a more creative sports programme which would encourage the other section to get involved a bit more in sport and healthy programmes. I am sure that it is not beyond the wisdom of someone to sit down and look at how to get a more creative sports programme to encourage those other folk who do not like sport to take part.

I agree that education has a big part to play in that. In your submission, there are some references to healthy eating programmes in schools. How are the various aspects of the Healthy Schools scheme being co-ordinated? How are the effects of that programme being measured and evaluated in individual schools and in board areas? Is there any evidence that the scheme is benefiting children?

Mr Alan McMullan (Department of Education):

I am primarily looking at the measures to change the type of food that is served in schools. Our principal measure of that is the uptake of school meals. We looked closely at the uptake of school meals when the nutritional standards, which aim to get a more healthy background, were introduced. We took a gradual approach to introducing those measures, and uptake decreased only slightly overall. The decrease has been bigger in secondary schools, where we feel that individual eating habits are already well formed and are, therefore, extremely difficult to change at that stage. In primary schools, the figures show a very slight increase.

Through our food in schools policy, we aim to ensure that primary-school children get the healthy food that they need, so that when they go to secondary school they carry on the good eating habits that they have learned. We expect to see uptake increase even further in a few years’ time.

Mr McCallister:

My questions will probably overlap some of the other questions that have been asked already. Initially, are you aiming to introduce pupils to, and teach them about, good food, rather than going to the other extremes of banning tuck shops and removing vending machines?

Mr McMullan:

We needed to make a fairly big step change, so we went after the main meal of the day, which, in some cases, is the only proper meal that pupils get. Having introduced nutritional standards for all school meals in 2007, we are now extending the food in schools policy to all other food. We have the legislative base to impose nutritional standards on the main meal of the day, but we do not have any legislative power over other food in schools. Therefore, we are trying to improve what is in vending machines and packed lunches by educating pupils and parents.

The food in schools policy will bring forward proposals for legislation that will affect other food in schools and give us the power to totally ban things. That said, 70% of the schools that were visited already had a food in schools policy in place; clearly, schools are taking the message on board.

Our nutritional associates are out there inspecting schools; if they see any breaches, they try to cajole the school into changing the food that is sold in vending machines. Instead of taking the big bang approach, we encourage replacing one row of food in vending machines with other healthier alternatives every couple of weeks, so that there is a gradual process and pupils are brought along with that.

Mr McCallister:

I accept Kieran’s and Tom’s points about pupils who mitch PE and pupils who do not. It is almost like preaching to the converted with that more elite group. Are there any figures to show whether the percentage of kids participating in PE has improved over the past number of years? Is there any evidence that we have at least begun to turn the corner and increase or stabilise the numbers participating? Are any records kept on that?

Ms Warde Hunter:

I do not know the answer to that, but I will go away and find out.

Ms Fitzgerald:

I can hazard a guess. All children should be participating in PE, and it is the teacher’s duty to deliver PE to all the children in his or her care. All children have different abilities, and it is the teacher’s duty to assess those in order to help pupils progress. Teachers must bear in mind that girls will disengage from PE earlier and that some children might have disabilities. It is for the teacher to assess that and ensure that a pupil’s participation matches his or her ability, which will encourage interest.

Mr McCallister:

Your answer is no different to an answer that would have been given 10 years ago. Would the standard response 10 or 20 years ago have been that all children should have engaged in some form of exercise?

Ms Warde Hunter:

Through the curriculum? What you are asking is whether, given the guidelines for two hours’ exercise, there is a baseline through which we can identify that 50% of schools provide one hour a day, 25% offer an hour and a half and 25% offer another amount. I put my hands up; we are not gathering the data in that way — not recently anyway. If the Committee supports such an approach, it may be possible to gather statistical information on the implementation of guidelines and the uptake of such activity. That could supplement the work of the inspectors, who visit individual schools or area bases. It is a guideline approach, notwithstanding what Kieran said earlier.

Mr McCallister:

We have nothing against which to measure results. Your answer sounds similar to one that would have been given when I was at school: that children should do a certain amount of PE a week. However, that has obviously not happened, and, 20-odd years later, kids are becoming obese and, hence, the Committee has undertaken this inquiry.

Are the 18 schools that are involved in the safer routes to school programme making any headway? I am aware of the success of that pilot project. Will the Department roll that scheme out to more schools?

Ms Warde Hunter:

Sorry; I do not know the answer to that question. As I said to the Chairperson at the beginning of the meeting, I have recently adopted this role. Therefore, sadly, I am not the fount of all knowledge yet. I will take that question back to the Department and provide a written answer.

Ms Fitzgerald:

The Department was a partner in that scheme, which was driven by Sustrans and the Department for Regional Development.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I met a couple of members of the Scottish Health and Sport Committee when they came here. They undertook an inquiry into the uptake of PE in schools and found that about one third of schools actually provided the required two hours of PE. Do you have any indication of whether we perform better or worse than that?

Ms Warde Hunter:

I do not know.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is OK.

Ms Warde Hunter:

I am sorry; I am not good with statistics today.

Mr Gallagher:

We could not be better than Scotland, because today it is all about extending and expanding the curriculum and ticking boxes. It is not the fault of the witnesses, who provided a good presentation. However, in many cases, we do not know what physical education children do in school. Some kids, because of their health or their genes or whatever, might not be up to two hours’ PE a week. Therefore, I understand why the Department does not have a regulation that requires everybody to do a minimum of two hours’ PE a week. At the same time, part of the path that we have to take to address the obesity problem is to find out exactly how much PE children are doing in school. There seems to be a gap in that area, and the Department seems unable to keep accurate records on how schools teach PE.

The other problem is that schools, because of all the curriculum pressures, are juggling responsibilities. They find it difficult to accommodate PE because it is getting pushed aside. We must bring some sense to how the curriculum is delivered nowadays, rather than telling schools that they must deliver all of it.

In the present circumstances, it is simply not possible for schools to deliver the entire curriculum in a way that benefits children. Therefore, instead of making teachers, kids and everyone dizzy trying to jump through hoops, we need to take a more balanced approach. Certainly, it is important that the curriculum offers choice; however, it must fit into the school’s timetable alongside PE. I am sure that a way can be devised for schools to record the time that is spent on PE or for someone else to record it for the Department.

Entitlement to free milk is a pertinent issue in schools because of milk’s importance in the diet, especially for growing children. Do all schools that have pupils who are entitled to free milk provide that entitlement? Does the Department do any checks on how free milk is administered?

Mr McMullan:

Certainly, there is an EU milk scheme. As far as I am aware, it is a voluntary scheme in schools. It is for schools to decide whether to take it up. I am not sure how many schools are involved in the scheme. I am sorry that I cannot answer your question.

Ms Warde Hunter:

We can certainly take it back to the Department to try to get a response.

Mr Gallagher:

It would be helpful to the inquiry if we had that data.

Ms Warde Hunter:

I appreciate members’ concern about balance and the Department’s apparent lack of clarity about the audit trail on the two hours of PE. If I can get a better answer on that issue, I will certainly bring it to you. I do not want to leave the member with the impression that we do not know what is going on in schools, so I want to read you the following paragraph about the minimum content for PE in schools.

Schools are required to deliver athletics, dance, games and gymnastics at Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1. At Key Stages 2 and 3, those areas — apart from dance at Key Stage 3, for whatever reason — and swimming must be delivered. Therefore, teaching children to swim is statutory. At Key Stage 4, pupils may study PE at GCSE level or equivalent. They must have the opportunity to plan and participate in a regular, frequent and balanced programme of PE that, among other things, helps to develop and sustain a healthy and active lifestyle.

The point is that we definitely know the progression of the curriculum, the importance of physical literacy and so forth. We know what activity children and young people should do at different stages. Kieran asked how we know whether that activity is being done for a minimum of two hours. I will try to get clarity on that point and bring it back to members.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much for coming along and making your presentation.

Ms Warde Hunter:

Thank you very much indeed.

Find MLAs


Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more