Sunday, June 07, 2009

Your child’s Body Mass Index is nobody’s business but yours

My daughter is desperately excited by her upcoming fifth birthday – not least because apparently she will ‘look like six’. She’s not daft; she knows that the labels on the clothes that I buy her now read ‘Age 6-7’, and that she is taller and heavier than some of her friends.

My daughter is not fat – although according to recent research from Newcastle University, eviscerated by Tim Black on spiked, as a parent I would be the last person to admit that she was. But she isn’t a skinnymalinks either. I’m quite pleased about this because I think she looks healthy and beautiful, and my instincts tell me that denying children pudding and sending them to bed hungry is neither necessary nor desirable in this day and age.

The trouble is, when you are constantly incited by government campaigns, health professionals and media reports to calculate and then worry about your child’s Body Mass Index, you find yourself doubting your instincts – and looking at your child in a very peculiar way. Will she pass the test? you wonder, when the school weigh-in programme comes around. If I put a chocolate biscuit in her lunchbox, will people think it’s my fault that she failed?

And so it was when, towards the end of last school term, I received a letter from the local NHS Community Services regarding the ‘height, weight, vision and hearing’ screening programme for reception-class children. Parents were advised to complete a form, which asked for basic health information about the child and gave the opportunity to consent – or not – to their child ‘receiving the Health Assessment Service offered’, and return it to the school forthwith. The covering letter was explicit in its advice that parents really should consent to this: we were told the Health Assessment was necessary ‘to identify any unmet health needs that may impact on your child’s education’; and that if we did not consent, or failed to return the form, ‘your GP will be notified’.

Now, I am not the most organised of parents when it comes to returning forms; but in this case, I actively dithered. I have no problem with vision and hearing screening offered through the school, not least because I can see how problems with eyesight and hearing really can ‘impact on your child’s education’. But screening for height and weight is a different matter. This is a political initiative, introduced a few years ago as part of the government’s war on obesity.

The introduction, in 2006, of a national ‘weigh-in’ scheme via schools, through which parents could be advised about how far down the scale of morbid obesity their children were sitting and through which the government could collect statistics to beef up their claims of a rampant fatness epidemic, was all about meeting the political objective of tackling a presumed public health problem (1). It had, and has, nothing to do with education – unless you take into account a fat kid’s ability to shine at PE.

This was given tacit recognition in the early days of the weigh-in scheme, when parents were given the ability to opt their child out of this aspect of the Health Assessment. But it was quickly discovered that the ‘target group’ – that is, children with less-than-perfect BMI scores – were being removed from the programme by their parents, defeating its stated objective of helping parents to recognise their child’s chubbiness and take appropriate lifestyle measures to address this; and the rules changed to make all parents comply with the screening.

The upshot, certainly in our neck of the woods, was that the political height and weight screening became lumped together with the medically more important hearing and vision screening, and parents are forced to ‘consent’ to all of this or face the scrutiny of their GP. The only basis on which you can ‘opt out’ is by refusing to allow your child’s height and weight measurements to be included in the government’s data collection statistics. Which is what, after far too much soul-searching, I eventually did. Not having the ability to register a protest about my child being weighed or having her individually graded on a scale of fatness (both of which I cared about) I took the only available opportunity of registering any kind of objection, by refusing to let anonymous, meaningless figures about my child be included in national statistics (about which I really don’t give a monkey’s).

Then a funny thing happened. Three weeks into the new school term, I received a message from my GP’s surgery asking me to get in touch, followed by a phone call from a very nice woman involved in the Health Assessment service. The woman explained to me that they had received my consent form after the screening had already taken place in school, and asked whether I would like them to arrange some separate screening for my daughter. I accepted the offer, although I also explained that if I thought there was a problem I would be happy to talk to my GP. After a brief pause, she admitted that, while my daughter had not been screened for vision and hearing because my consent had not been given, they had gone ahead with the height and weight screening, with the result that I would receive a letter telling me how tall my daughter was and how much she weighed, and that these statistics would have already been passed on for collection in the government’s data.

The woman was very apologetic, and took pains to reassure me that all this data was ‘anonymised’. I explained that I did not actually mind the data being collected, but that it seemed rather strange that my lack of consent could be taken seriously when it came to the medically-important part of the screening service that I did want to access, but ignored when it came to the very bit of the service that I was worried about. I raised my concerns that the height and weight screening was a political measure that had nothing to do with my child’s education, and pointed out that – unlike eyesight and hearing – I was perfectly capable of measuring height and weight myself. The woman agreed with me that the height and weight screening was indeed political, and said that was causing those working in this field a lot of problems with parents becoming upset and confused by the whole thing – the last thing that health professionals want to happen.

So, I asked, am I likely to receive a letter categorising my child as underweight, normal, overweight, obese? The woman explained that no, this year they were not categorising children like this, because last year several parents became understandably very upset on hearing that their child had been awarded a fat grade. Consequently, this year parents would be receiving (as I did) a letter that simply informed us how tall and heavy our child was, along with a general paragraph on the importance of having a healthy weight. But, as she pointed out, this would lead to complaints, too, as parents were utterly confused about ‘what it meant’. In other words, simply being told that your child weighs x kilos begs the question of whether you are then supposed to go and work out their Body Mass Index and its presumed relationship to healthy weights and diets – or whether you just chuck the letter in the bin.

I haven’t chucked the letter in the bin – but only because I want to keep it as proof that I do not require surveillance by my GP. The telephone call from my local surgery, staffed by busy, conscientious people who are brilliant when you are ill, turned out to have been placed because I had not returned the screening form in time, and they just wanted to check ‘whether everything is okay’. As it goes, I am not worried that they might be worried – the GP practice knows my family, and I am confident that they realise that the reason we are not visiting the doctor all the time is because, actually, the kids are pretty healthy. But they, too, are forced to play along with an agenda that forces parents to ‘consent’ to surveillance practices that both parents and health professionals know are based on political objectives rather than health imperatives.

What a waste of everybody’s time, skill and energy this all is. And how bad it is for children, that so many people are scrutinising their bodies for signs of a glitch in the BMI calculation, rather than seeing them as little people with so many more exciting challenges ahead than worrying about what they had for breakfast.


Anger as British school tells children aged five about homosexual the sound of Elton John

Pupils as young as five were left 'confused and worried' after a school assembly to explain homosexuality. Teachers played a recording of Elton John's Your Song before explaining that the singer is homosexual and what the term means. The children were then shown images of same-sex couples.

Parents said the experience left some pupils afraid to cuddle each other in the playground in case other children thought they were gay. They have complained they were not consulted over the content of the assembly. Although it may have been appropriate for older children, they say it left the little ones confused and self-conscious about being friends with classmates of the same sex. When parents complained to the headmaster, they claim they were treated as 'homophobic' for even raising the issue.

The assembly, given to pupils aged from five to 11 at Bromstone Primary, in Broadstairs, Kent, aimed to steer them away from homophobic bullying. It also covered bullying on the grounds of race, language and weight.

Gemma Martin, 28, whose children, Chloe, seven, and Danny, four, attend the school, said some pupils were now worried 'about being friends with each other'. 'Little girls often cuddle each other if one of them is crying or has fallen over, and now they are afraid to do that in case the others think they are gay,' she said.

Michelle Cosgrove, 33, said some parents felt they were treated as homophobic just for asking why they had not been consulted about the assembly. Her three children, Jasmine, ten, Luke, seven, and Freya, five, attend the school. She said the example of two boys holding hands and two boys kissing was mentioned in the assembly - held the day after the International Day Against Homophobia. She found herself answering questions on homosexuality when her children raised it at home. 'There is no way on this earth I'm homophobic - I just want the choice as a parent to talk to my children about this when the time is appropriate,' she said.

Headmaster Nigel Utton said the 30-minute assembly contained only a small section on homosexuality which was appropriate for the age of the children. It was part of an initiative spearheaded by Kent County Council, he said. Other parents had approved of the assembly, he said. It had not been necessary to consult them beforehand. 'Five-year-olds understand about relationships and about liking people,' he said.

Kent education officer Lynne Miller said: 'This was an assembly about bullying and parents have praised the school for its handling of such a sensitive matter. 'Young children are exposed at a very early age to homophobic language. If language is not challenged it makes it much more difficult to address homophobic bullying in secondary schools.'


British plan to give parents the power to oust underperforming headmasters

Schools Secretary Ed Balls is considering a new scheme that will let parents overthrow poor headmasters. Parents would be able to rate their children’s education and trigger the overthrow of poor headmasters under plans being drawn up by ministers. Councils will be required to act on their views and send in superheads or open new primaries and secondaries where families are dissatisfied. Officials will also be expected to expand popular schools if large numbers of pupils miss out on their first choice school. The ‘parent power’ proposals are expected to form part of a White Paper to be unveiled later this month by Schools Secretary Ed Balls.

The measures, seen as an answer to Conservative plans to allow families to set up their own schools, will be launched as Gordon Brown desperately seeks to shift attention from questions over his leadership. The Tories branded the proposals as underwhelming. The Liberal Democrats said they were gimmicks.

Under the initiative, parents will be asked to rate schools on U.S.-style report cards, which will eventually replace traditional league tables. The report cards will give grades in each of up to six categories including parents’ views, pupils’ views, attainment, pupil progress and children’s well-being. These grades are expected to be condensed into an overall grade for the school, from A to E or even F.

Parents will also be asked to rate the schools in their area as part of plans to force councils to overhaul education provision if parents are unhappy. Parents already answer questionnaires from inspection body Ofsted and this mechanism is expected to be expanded to cover schools across an authority. Officials would be forced to respond to parental concerns, for example by changing the management of struggling schools. Underperforming schools could be taken over by higher-achieving neighbours. There would be an expansion in the number of ‘federations’ or chains of schools run by an executive head.

Outlining his thinking in a recent speech, Mr Brown said: ‘Where there is significant dissatisfaction with the pattern of secondary school provision, and where standards across an area are too low, then the local authority will be required to act. ‘This could mean either the creation of a federation of schools, an expansion of good school places, or, in some cases, the establishment of entirely new schools.’

A Tory party spokesman branded the proposals timid: ‘The Government should be introducing legislation to give teachers more power to keep order in the classroom and to sort out the exam system.’

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘We will be interested to see what will be in the White Paper. ‘We support the direction the Government seems to want to travel in. But we are against a large letter being on the report card denoting a school’s category. ‘We think this would be incredibly misleading for everyone, especially parents.’


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