The obesity crisis among Year 6 schoolchildren has reached new heights, latest figures reveal.
Data released on Thursday by NHS Digital shows 20.1% of these pupils were obese in 2017-18 – the highest since records began in 2006-07. This equates to 116,134 children being obese.
“These figures are a stark reminder of the urgent childhood obesity crisis that we face as a nation”
Conversely, the figures show 9.5% of reception-aged pupils (58,000 children) were obese in 2017-18, a drop from 9.6% the previous year and 9.9% in 2006-07.
A further 14.2% of Year 6 children and 12.8% of reception pupils were consider overweight last financial year, according to the data.
The data was retrieved as part of the government’s National Child Measurement Programme, which is usually carried out by school nursing teams.
The latest results show significant variation between different regions in England.
The obesity prevalence in reception-age children ranged from 4.9% in Kingston upon Thames to 14.4% in Knowsley, while the Year 6 rate varied from 11.4% in Richmond upon Thames to 29.7% in Barking and Dagenham.
“We have been clear that we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep children healthy and well in this country”
Child obesity levels in the poorest area of the country are more than double than those in the richest areas, the data shows.
The number of children being measured as part of the mandatory scheme has risen by 35% from 876,416 in 2006-07 to almost 1.2m last financial year.
The National Child Measurement Programme is part of the government’s approach to tackle childhood obesity.
Councils have been responsible for delivering the scheme since 2013 when public health powers were transferred from the NHS to local authorities.
However, in response to the figures, Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, warned that budget cuts were threatening efforts to tackle obesity.
“These figures are a stark reminder of the urgent childhood obesity crisis that we face as a nation, and the need for decisive, radical action,” Mr Hudspeth said.
“The UK is already one of the most obese nations in western Europe, with one in three 10 and 11-year-olds and one in five four and five-year-olds classed as overweight or obese, respectively,” he said.
“Unless we tackle this obesity crisis, today’s obese children will become tomorrow’s obese adults whose years of healthy life will be shortened by a whole host of health problems including diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” he warned.
He added: “Councils have measured more children since taking on responsibility for the National Child Measurement Programme than ever before, but rising demand and funding cuts threaten this good work and the weight management services that are crucial for making the difference.
“Councils are leading efforts to fight obesity but for this to work effectively they need to be properly resourced,” he stated.
Mr Hudspeth said public health funding to council had been reduced by £600m from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
He called on the government to reverse cuts for these services and said any extra funding for the NHS should include public health money for councils, because “the two are so intrinsically linked”.
Meanwhile, public health minister Steve Brine said: “Obesity is a problem that has been decades in the making – one that will take significant effort across government, schools, families and wider society to address.
“We cannot expect to see a reversal in trends overnight – but we have been clear that we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep children healthy and well in this country,” he said.
Mr Brine said the government had removed “tonnes of sugar” from children’s diets through the sugar tax, money from which had been used to fund school sports and breakfast programmes.
The second chapter of the government’s childhood obesity strategy was published this summer and aspires to halve childhood obesity by 2030.
“We owe it to current and future generations to act now”
Eustace De Sousa
It includes plans to enforce mandatory calorie labelling on food served outside the home; restrict price promotions on unhealthy foods; and ban on the sale of energy drinks to children.
Public Health England is also challenging the food industry to reduce 20% of sugar and calories in everyday foods consumed regularly by children, and is encouraging families to make healthier choices through the Change4Life campaign.
Eustace De Sousa, national lead for children at PHE, said: “These figures are a stark reminder that addressing childhood obesity is everyone’s problem.
“We owe it to current and future generations to act now. Everyone – from the food industry to local councils – should play their part, but families can also make positive changes with help from Change4Life,” he said.