Getting an NCMP Letter
Back in March I spotted a BBC article which really caught my attention and made me think. The report was about a group of parents in Devon who were demanding an apology from their children’s school after ‘insensitive’ letters were sent home to warn them that their kids were ‘overweight or very overweight’. As I finished reading I was left with very mixed feelings, and it took me right back to the moment when I opened just such a letter myself.
While I can fully understand the parents’ concerns and outrage at their children being described as overweight, I also strongly believe that schools and school nurses do have a major role to play in tackling childhood obesity. If that means telling some hard truths and pointing out the painful facts, then so be it for the sake of our children . Reading the letter which told me my own son was overweight was incredibly hard – although I already knew that Harrison had a weight problem, hearing it from someone else was always going to hurt.
A Weighty Issue for Schools
Although some schools already play a part supporting parents in managing children’s weight, it still isn’t enough. At the moment, the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) means children are measured and weighed when they first enter primary school and again at the end when they leave. Given so much can happen in those intervening years, this hardly seems often enough to give an accurate picture or halt weight problems in their tracks when they first become an issue.
You will have seen along the way on this journey I have a great deal of respect for chef Jamie Oliver, who shares the view that the NCMP in its current shape is a very blunt instrument in the fight against childhood obesity. On his Food Revolution website, Jamie Oliver suggests extending the NCMP programme so that children are measured ‘annually throughout primary school, so that early signs of obesity can be spotted and preventative measures put in place’.
He also highlights the fact that the programme must be ‘sensitively run’, so that it avoids younger children developing eating disorders. This leads me back to the Devon parents and their concerns that the letters they received from their school were insensitive. With eating disorders so prevalent and so many young people having an unhealthy relationship with food, at both ends of the spectrum, how do you go about opening a conversation about weight with your young children?
Starting a Dialogue......
This is not an easy conversation to have at any time in a child’s life.
I can clearly remember the moment I realised Harrison and I had a problem with his weight. We were out shopping for clothes together when I suddenly realised that the only things I could get for him were in larger sizes – they fitted comfortably around his tummy and waist but were far too long and looked silly on him, which limited the fashionable clothes he could wear just at a time when he was beginning to find that style matters. It hit me so hard I could have burst into tears there and then, and as a parent – like any parent – I started to criticise myself for having let things reach this state.
This happened a long time before I received the school letter, and the minute we got home I sat Harrison down and explained very simply that our lifestyle was going to change. We talked about sport and exercise, and how being more active would make him feel better and give him more energy. He had always wanted to get onto the school football team but never got picked, so the idea that he might make the squad was a big incentive. We also talked about food, about what was good and bad for us and the effect that eating too much could have on our bodies. I didn’t go into any great detail because I didn’t want to scare him, but I showed him pictures of the various parts of the body and explained that when out tummies get bigger because we’re overweight, our hearts have to work much harder to keep all these other bits of us healthy.
Perhaps I was particularly lucky. Perhaps Harrison’s sunny outlook on life helped, and perhaps I just happened to stumble across the best way to approach the subject by chance. There’s certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ method of opening the conversation because every child and every situation is different. Harrison took this chat very well – the attractions of playing more football and being able to fit into nicer clothes were a real boost, and kickstarted our weight loss journey.
I’ll admit, it’s still a learning curve for both of us. Harrison is still being weaned off the idea that if you play more sport that means you can eat more! Explaining balancing calories and physical exercise to a child is always tricky, but it’s important to find ways to support them and help them live a healthier, more active lifestyle. If schools could do more through the NCMP programme to catch weight issues a parent might miss or turn a blind eye to, then that’s all for the better.
Schools and parents need to work closely together and support one another, not play a blame game over childhood obesity. If you receive one of these letters, my advice would be to take the apparent criticism on the chin and start talking to your children about weight problems – talking is the only way to take that first step towards a healthier lifestyle.