Child of the North 2024 Campaign – Report 5

A country that works for all children and young people

An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings


The fifth report in a year-long series – produced jointly by Child of the North and the Centre for Young Lives – that seeks to deliver a country that works for all children and young people, calls for schools to be supported to fix the broken school food system and tackle Britain’s child obesity crisis.

The report, An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings, makes a series of recommendations which if implemented will help tackle the child obesity crisis and mend the broken school food system. It argues that schools should be crucial environments for boosting healthy eating and physical activity and highlights overwhelming evidence on the need to empower schools to devise their own whole-school approaches in collaboration with their local communities.

It warns that the evidence is overwhelming and unequivocal – the health of children and young people in the UK is getting worse, and children’s education, health and wellbeing is being affected by inactivity and unhealthy diets.

The report urges Government to:

  • Establish whole-school approaches for physical activity and healthy nutrition, bringing together health and education to better support childhood health and wellbeing. Every school should be able to tailor its own approach based on its unique local circumstances.
  • Support schools to deliver an ethos where the health and wellbeing of pupils is central to teaching practices and the wider school environment, and encourage Ofsted to recognise schools that emphasise the importance of activity and healthy eating.
  • Support schools to work alongside local Higher Education institutions, to draw on research expertise, including expertise on physical activity and healthy nutrition, to highlight the most effective interventions and use local and national data to guide good practice, in coordination with local communities.

The report also highlights the challenges facing schools as they try to provide healthy food on tiny budgets. It publishes research carried out by the University of York’s FixOurFood programme and the Food Foundation, which investigated children’s perceptions of the food offered within secondary schools and looked at whether they could buy tasty, healthy, and sustainable food with the free school meal allowance.

Its conclusions show how children on free school meals often face restricted choices. There was a lack of fruit, vegetables, and salad in all schools, and portion sizes were often not filling, leaving children hungry. As one young researcher commented: “The closest thing you get to fruit is jelly”.

Cover of the Child of the North report 'An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings'

An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings

Our analysis reveals that:

  • Almost 4m children are not physically active for the recommended 60+ minutes a day
  • 82% of 5-15-year-olds do not consume the recommended 5 daily portions of fruit and vegetables
  • Children aged 4-10 years are consuming almost double their recommended daily sugar limits
  • 4,000 hours of PE were lost from the curriculum in state-funded secondary schools in 2022-23

Click here to download the report


The evidence-based policy recommendations contained in the report also include to:

  • Introduce clear nutrition standards for all food and drink available at school including school meals, snacks, and vending machines, and supporting schools to promote physical activity throughout all areas of the school day.
  • Extend free school fruit and vegetables provision to all school year groups and expand the provision of school breakfast clubs.
  • Widen entitlement to Free School Meals and the provision of the Healthy Start scheme, which provides weekly food vouchers for pregnant women and families with children under four years, in low-income households.

The report also highlights some of the innovative approaches being taken to improve the health of children and young people through schools, including auto-enrolment of Free School Meals, as currently being investigated by FixOurFood.

Report Webinar

On Tuesday 11th June a number of the report’s authors came together to discuss the report’s findings and policy recommendations, including:

  • Dr Lucy Eddy & Dr Andy Daly-Smith – University of Bradford
  • Dr Alison Fildes – University of Leeds
  • Prof Maria Bryant – University of York
  • Prof Greta Defeyter – Northumbria University

Watch a recording of the webinar here.


Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said:

“We are facing a child obesity crisis, and our children are becoming unhealthier and less active. The resulting poor physical and mental health of our population is crippling the NHS and urgent action is needed. The broken school food system and the lack of school funding to improve school meals is acting as a huge barrier to healthy food choices and improved children’s health.

“With the right support, schools have a crucial role to play as partners in developing and delivering wider approaches to supporting improved health nutrition and increased physical activity. If we get it right, some of the other challenges facing schools – the rising number of absences due to ill health, concentration levels, and classroom behaviour for example – could also be improved.

“It’s time to superpower our schools and communities to help children and young people eat well, engage in physical activity, and be healthy.”

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of the North report series editor, said:

“The links between health and education are illustrated perfectly through the negative impact on learning created by a malnourished child. A healthy country needs to invest in its future workforce and this means supporting schools to help children eat well and be active. The paltry costs necessary to ensure children learn effectively would be swamped by the long term savings the NHS would make if it wasn’t picking up the obesity problems created through the first two decades of someone’s life.”

Report Author Dr Eleanor Bryant, Associate Professor in Health and Eating Behaviour Psychology at the University of Bradford, said:

“Children that receive adequate healthy nutrition are more able to engage with education as well as have better physical and mental health. This report highlights the benefits of universal approaches, including Free School Meals, and Breakfast Clubs. It also emphasises the importance of child voice in decision making around healthy nutrition in schools. We urgently need change to ensure children have the best possible chance to succeed within education settings.”

Report Author Dr Lucy Eddy, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bradford, said:

“The broader curriculum in schools emphasises the importance of wider health and wellbeing behaviours for later life chances. Schools need to be empowered to and rewarded for supporting more holistic child development. The adoption of whole-school approaches that are tailored to the needs of local communities, have the potential to have long-lasting impacts on education, health and wellbeing for the next generation and beyond.”

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