By Baroness Floella Benjamin
Childhood lasts a lifetime and children are our future. So the type of society we create for the generations that will come after us is dependent upon on how we treat them in the ‘here and now’.
I believe that there can be no more important duty for anybody who serves in public life and that is why I agreed to Chair a new All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood.
It’s been a busy year, with enthusiastic participation from people and organisations from all walks of life and recently I was delighted to commend our first report: Healthy Patterns for Healthy Families to my parliamentary colleagues.
The report is wide – ranging, with recommendations covering a policy spectrum from nutrition to play and culminating in a call for a new post of Cabinet Minister for Children to co-ordinate strategy across Government Departments and drive the agenda.
At the heart of all our proposals and embedded in every recommendation that we make, is the importance and primacy of the family in nurturing children; giving them the best start in life and thus preparing them for an adult life that will be happy as well as healthy.
I’ve been privileged to meet many diverse families living in different circumstances and coping with challenges that are unique to them.
Our report acknowledges that parents will always be more sensitive and in tune to the needs of their children than any external body, however well-meaning, but that does not mean that they should be left to struggle on alone.
Government should be there to lend a hand up; to provide support in a sensitive and non-intrusive manner and to give parents confidence in making the right choices for children and all the family. Firstly this means acknowledging that the inescapable presence of social and economic inequality does not offer all our children a developmental ‘level playing field.’
No Government can ensure that every household is in receipt of the same income, but every Government can and should, broaden opportunity for all families, regardless of income bracket.
Amongst other initiatives, this can be achieved by swift moves to secure the future of Children’s Centres as a universal service, extending the pupil premium to the Early Years and committing extra investment to Children’s Centre budgets. A universal service, rather than one seen to be targeted at pockets of deprivation and as a consequence, acquiring a stigma, has proved to be the best way to reach disadvantaged families.
Breastfeeding does not come with a price tag to the mother, but this primary source of excellent nutrition is not openly advocated as a desirable norm. We should take a lead from other European countries, by promoting breastfeeding with well-designed television advertisements and creating readily accessible places for mothers to breastfeed in all workplaces and shops/leisure outlets.
Before a baby is born, regular visits from the Health Visitor can increase a new mum’s confidence in feeding her child and this should continue after birth up to and including the weaning period.
In the same way, The Healthy Child programme contains some excellent recommendations for those first weeks, months and years and we should implement them across the board, recognising too, The Early Years as a developmental stage in its own right and designing quality Early Years education and childcare that is supportive of families in helping them to develop their child’s unique skills.
After parents have navigated their way through what we call the ‘terrible two’ schooldays arrive with fresh challenges for the family. Although there have been welcome new Government initiatives, notably the provision of a free, cooked meal for the infant age-group (with some plans to extend throughout the whole primary stage), parents can often feel cut off from ‘what goes on’ in the classroom.
Here, I believe that the best outcomes are achieved if families and the school community work together, with parents and their children encouraged to collaborate with head teachers and governing bodies to ensure that a school’s policies and ethos promote fitness and wellbeing for every child. The presence of Family Liaison Workers, based in schools can offer a supportive role in devising home activities that encourage children to be more physically active, eat a more nutritious diet and spend less time in screen-based pursuits.
For some, the extended school day also provides a new opportunity for school and family learning to dovetail, enabling families and children to be educated together about food, nutrition, physical activity and health.
‘Play’ to a child of today means something very different to what would be understood by previous generations – but we should never be afraid to learn from the past!
Our grandparents had no access to play stations and video games and frequently made their own ‘playgrounds’ at the bottom of a street or beside a hedgerow.
Maybe they had a few more scratched knees, but they also developed confidence, street-sense, leadership skills and awareness of risk. They were also leaner, fitter and healthier.
Play freely chosen is a vital component of child health and wellbeing and here, central Government can really make a difference by working with Local Authorities to develop strategies for safer, child-friendly streets in residential areas (including new housing developments) within their Local Development plans. Like the Welsh Government, we should introduce a ‘play duty’ as part of a new national Play Strategy, placing a child’s need to have safe, free access to suitable places to play before traffic issues and profit from development.
The Department of Education should introduce training and guidance in the enablement of free play for all professionals with responsibility for children including Ofsted. Schools can become hubs of advice and support for families who wish to adopt healthier lifestyles and a key component will be an improved understanding and provision of outdoor play at school and in the home environment.
My thinking is constantly informed by a deeply-held conviction that parents will always want to give their children the best start in life.
Sometimes, the sheer pace and pressure of modern living means that they need more directed help and the Government advisory body NICE has recognised the valuable role that can be undertaken here by responsible evidence-based weight loss organisations.
Working from a family-centred perspective, such organisations can help families at all stages from pregnancy onwards, supporting them to adopt new healthy lifestyles and reducing the presence of obesity that can trigger diseases such as type two diabetes, some cancers and osteoarthritis in adult life.
Local Authorities should take on a new responsibility in raising awareness of lifestyle weight management programmes and providers amongst the general public and the professionals who work with families and children. In turn, to build credibility and ensure transparency, the providers should monitor and evaluate their programmes, supplying evidence-based data to commissioners and those responsible for referrals. All data should be published and readily accessible, thus enabling families to make the choices that are right for them.
Our report raises challenging questions and offers some imaginative solutions and I believe that the growing awareness of the importance of childhood in the health of our nation means that there has never been a more favourable time to start a robust discussion about what makes a child fit, happy and healthy and the best ways to achieve that goal.
Above all, we need a figure in Government with sufficient authority to drive the strategy and only a Minister for Children with a seat in Cabinet will have a full remit to work with all organisations and concerns on a cross Departmental basis to achieve the best outcomes for every child.
As a General Election nears, our All Party Group is keen to start the conversation with all political parties; building a national consensus to vote for our country by putting our children first.
Children who are happy, fit and healthy are children who are loved.
Politicians, who put them first and adopt policies to support their parents in giving them a foundation for the future, will truly deserve our trust.
Baroness Floella Benjamin, All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood