Seanad Debate on Health Awareness and Physical Fitness Among Schoolchildren

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Seanad Debate on Health Awareness and Physical Fitness Among Schoolchildren – Contribution by Senator Power

I thank Senator Coghlan and the Independent group for tabling this motion. It is great for the House to have the benefit of his sporting expertise and that he is doing something worthwhile with it. The report was excellent. It was not just a stark reminder; it contained a lot of statistics which were quite frightening on the current position and where we are heading in terms of the obesity epidemic, as well as clear recommendations. It is welcome.

 

I largely agree with the motion. PE should be given as much time and considered to be of equal value as other subjects in schools. It is worrying to read in the report that does not happen. In a recent survey of primary school children only 35% were timetabled with the recommended 60 minutes a week. The problem is that the amount of time is recommended and not mandatory. It is seen as discretionary or something that schools do after they have done everything else. It should be mandatory.

 

I accept what other speakers said about facilities in schools. With respect, from 1997 to 2008 a massive amount of money was spent on sporting infrastructure all over the country to which schools should have access. There are crazy situations where schools have no sports halls but are located beside excellent facilities in a GAA or football club which are not being used. It is criminal and we could solve a lot of the issues we have if we ensured community facilities were properly available and used constantly. Some sports clubs are great and have good partnerships with schools but it should be required rather than being at the discretion of those who are willing to make an exception and offer facilities to local schools.

 

As other speakers have said, schools alone cannot fix the problem. No matter what great work is done in a school children are only there for one third of their waking hours. If they are dropped to school early, fed chips and allowed to sit in front of a PlayStation for the evening, whatever happens in school will not educate them about being aware of their nutritional and health needs.

 

In fairness to parents, there is a lot of misinformation. Sometimes understanding the nutritional content of food is confusing. Some large multiples have introduced good systems such as traffic light labelling where they point out the fat, carbohydrate and salt content. They also make a distinction between fat and saturated fat and try to help people to understand the difference between good and bad fats.

 

A package with a red light on it makes it very easy for a person to identify that the food contains 40% of his or her salt intake for the day. It is a clear way to help people understand labels compared to the traditional labels which require know-how to understand them and how they fit in with one’s daily allowance. Parents need to be equipped with the information they need. We should consider introducing traffic light labelling. In the past the dairy industry expressed concerns about the fact some of its foods can be seen as high-fat. We can get around that with sophisticated labelling and educating people about good fats.

 

As Members will be aware our party tabled legislation requiring large restaurant chains to advertise the calorie content of food. It would be a positive step forward. It is important to give people clear, understandable information in order that they can make smart food choices.

 

It is also important that teachers in schools have the right training. Recommendations were made to bring in specialist primary school teachers. In an ideal world I would love that to happen but I do not see it as something that will be possible over the next few years. I hope that, given the cross-sectoral brief of the Minister of State, she will talk to the Minister for Education and Skills about reviewing primary school teacher training. Teachers have identified repeatedly in reports it is an area where they feel weak and are not confident in delivering the PE programme.

 

It is something that should be examined in the review. At second level, some qualified PE teachers are unemployed yet there are worrying incidents in terms of timetabling. Perhaps some schools do not take PE seriously and see it as an add-on for a maths, geography or history teacher who teaches ten hours in a main subject and is asked to take a PE class. It is a psyche we need to change. Properly trained PE teachers should teach the subject.

 

I am concerned about one element of the report referred to by Senator Coghlan. The data show that parents of children who are overweight, and the children themselves, do not have the awareness to realise their BMI is too high. There is work to be done in raising awareness, but I am somewhat concerned by the notion of health checks in schools. Consultations with Bodywhys and other organisations dealing with eating disorders may be necessary before embarking on any such strategy. I agree that children need to be made aware if there is a problem with their weight, as do their parents, but we must be sensitive in how we address it in order to avoid creating other problems.

 

I welcome this excellent report and the helpful debate we have had today. I thank the Minister for taking Senators’ views on board.

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