Unlocking the potential of sport and physical activity for our long-term health and wellbeing

Head of Sport Vicci Wells talks about broadening the curriculum and enrichment offer within schools and the importance of measuring health and wellbeing.

Vicci Wells represented the Youth Sport Trust at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Running event on 14 November at Downderry School, Lewisham.

Representatives from the Daily Mile, England Athletics, London mini-marathon and the Personal Best Foundation attended alongside Kim Leadbeater MP, chair of the APPG for Running. The purpose of the event was to amplify the message voiced at the APPG session at the Labour conference in Liverpool last month that we need to unlock the potential of sport and physical activity for our long-term health and wellbeing.

Vicci spoke about broadening the curriculum and enrichment offer within schools and the importance of measuring health and wellbeing. In this blog, Vicci expands on some of the ideas she presented and explores the importance of sport and physical activity on our health and wellbeing.

The current situation

Children and young people aren’t as active as they should be, or indeed as active as they used to be. The UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommends that all children and young people should be physically active for at least 60 minutes each day. However, at present less than half are meeting this ambition. An increase in screen time, the ongoing effects of COVID, the cost-of-living crisis and the erosion of unsupervised play have all played a part in this decrease.

At the Youth Sport Trust we believe schools are uniquely placed to reach every child and empower them with opportunities to be active, both inside and outside the school day. The role of schools is particularly important for young people who might otherwise struggle to access opportunities outside schools for a variety of reasons. We believe that access to good quality to PE provision and an engaging co-curricula offer including sport and play is key to unlocking the power of physical activity to improve wellbeing.

PE is key to increasing physical activity levels.

Despite the success and the feelgood factor provided by the 2012 London Olympics, unfortunately the amount of PE and sport in secondary schools in England has fallen by more than 12% since the Games. Figures released by the Government earlier this year found a further 4,000 PE hours in state-funded secondary schools were lost in the past academic year. We believe a large reason for this fall is because PE is a non-core subject, which makes it harder for schools to find time in a crowded curriculum.

We want to see an increased role for PE in schools, with the core curriculum extended to include a minimum of two hours of PE each week. At present, schools are encouraged to deliver two hours of PE each week, but it is not mandatory and often these hours are squeezed out due to weather, exams or any other one of many competing priorities. Extending the core curriculum would elevate the profile of PE within schools, and ensure all children are provided with the opportunity to be active.

Providing a co-curricula offer.

As well as providing a minimum of two hours of PE, schools need to be supported to deliver a co-curricular offer that provides opportunities to take part in school sport and activity outside of the school day. Embedding opportunities within and around the school day would increase physical activity, make daily activity the norm, and has the potential to help with wider systemic challenges such as persistent absence. It’s also the case that participating in wider school activities can have a significant effect on the way children and young people feel in school, and about school. Alongside this, efforts should be made to make greater use of school sport facilities outside the school day, particularly in areas where access to community facilities is lower.

Measuring Health and Wellbeing

If you can’t measure something, how do you manage it or make improvements?

Research carried out by the Youth Sport Trust found that pupil wellbeing is the top factor for parents when choosing a secondary school (65%) and over three quarters of parents agreed that ‘we need to measure young people’s wellbeing if we are going to improve it.' Additionally, 81% of parents believe that cuts to PE, sport and break time in schools are likely to have a negative impact on wellbeing.

Physical activity is one of the key drivers of wellbeing. It improves physical and mental health, enables people to make connections and develop relationships, gives young people a sense of belonging, and can also be vital for developing skills such as leadership, teamwork and communication. As well as unlocking ways to improve wellbeing we need to measure it to track progress. Not only is this important to understand the impact of policies, but monitoring and measuring wellbeing would allow policy makers to identify communities or areas where there are particular wellbeing challenges, and tailor interventions accordingly.

A number of children’s charities have called for the introduction of a national wellbeing measurement for children and young people. The Youth Sport Trust supports this proposal, as part of a wider ambition for government to prioritise children and young people’s wellbeing across government.

Examples of wellbeing being measured in schools.

#BeeWell is a programme in Greater Manchester that aims to measure the wellbeing of young people and deliver positive change in communities as a result. The #BeeWell survey is designed to help embed long-term improvements in wellbeing by finding the right ways to support young people. In 2022, 34,208 pupils from 134 secondary schools completed the survey, providing a comprehensive snapshot of young people’s wellbeing in Manchester.

This report highlighted that wellbeing declined slightly for young people moving from Year 8 into Year 9, it showed 42% of Year 9 students reporting they aren’t getting enough sleep to feel awake and concentrate at school and only 67% of young people say they have good places to spend free time.

This overall data provides a great tool to examine overall trends, but its value also lies in the breakdown by neighbourhoods which allows interventions to be targeted more precisely and effectively.

Future health and happiness.

We believe that improving children and young people’s wellbeing should be a national priority. Understanding the important role physical activity can play in increasing a young person’s wellbeing and finding effective ways to measure and evaluate wellbeing will be crucial over the years ahead as the country continues its recovery from the pandemic. Events like today highlight there is a united voice from sport, physical activity and events leaders to create a rallying cry to policymakers, acknowledging that the future health and happiness of children and young people, demands action now.

Published on 14 November 2023