The Conservatives’ decision to weigh primary-school pupils after lockdown is a move fuelled by classism, initiated by a government whose intention is to vilify the working class. The gesture is ironic, given that it was only in January of this year that this country’s leaders were unwilling to provide the UK’s most deprived children with proper sustenance. 

Shifting blame on the poorest

The announcement that pupils in UK primary schools are to be regularly weighed from September onwards was first made on the 20th of June. The government is reportedly concerned that the numerous lockdowns – combined with the unprecedented move to home learning — will have led to a spike in obesity among young children.

What the government neglects to mention, is that those whose health is likely to have deteriorated the greatest during lockdown are those whose struggle with poverty is the greatest. Rather than taking sufficient preemptive measures to provide deprived families with enough resources to withstand over a year of unimaginable hardship, the government’s solution is to shift the blame to those who find themselves in inescapable poverty. Parents who are doing everything in their power to love and nurture their children — in spite of the impossible circumstances they find themselves in — do not deserve to be publicly shamed by a government whose support for the poor has been so meagre. 

The current Universal Credit scheme does not provide claimants with enough money to cover living costs. A sobering 84 per cent of recipients still do not have enough money to cover rent, food, and bills. During the pandemic, the government announced a £20 weekly raise in the basic element of Universal Credit. However, The Conversation found that successful claimants were still struggling to make ends meet. Almost 60 per cent of first-time claimants and 43 per cent of pre-existing recipients suffered a decrease in their income, which became unmanageable, even when they reduced their spending. Approximately 50 per cent of recipients endured ‘more severe financial strain’, such as struggling to afford rent, as well as fruits and vegetables. 

We can already begin to draw some sort of correlation. Those who lack the financial means to purchase healthy, nourishing food are more likely to turn to cheaper options: choices that are often far more unhealthy

The issue is not that parents want to feed their children junk food, but that putting any sort of food on their plate is better than no food at all.

As The 2020 Broken Plate Report phrased it:

‘Many people in the UK have insufficient incomes due to low or precarious wages, as well as high outgoing costs of housing and other essentials. […] Skipping meals or opting for the cheapest options — which are often the least healthy — has to suffice’.

Supermarkets also have a tendency to place fast food in the special offer section more frequently than they do healthy food. It is surely beyond unreasonable then to blame those on tight budgets for trying to stretch their funds as far as possible? They’re simply ensuring their children do not starve. 

Government-imposed confinement

At various points throughout the past 15 months, people living in the UK have found themselves confined to their living spaces. In the summer, the population was limited to one session of outdoor exercise per day. For some, this was an opportunity to set themselves certain targets and fulfil fitness milestones. For others, this was a whole other type of challenge. With schools shut and no PE lessons for pupils, parents of young children found themselves in the impossible position of having to juggle work, home-schooling, and their children’s wellbeing.

There are over 130,000 English families living in cramped one-bedroom flats with no access to private gardens — something that families living in houses may take for granted. Naturally, children who lack an immediate outdoor space are less likely to be able to go for a ‘quick kickabout’. But aside from private spaces, people on low incomes are less satisfied with the quality of local green spaces than their wealthier counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those on high incomes spent double the amount of time keeping fit during lockdown than their low-income counterparts throughout lockdown. 

If the poorer members of our society are deprived of adequate local facilities to exercise in, it should come as no shock that they miss the opportunity to keep fit. 

The last thing overburdened parents need is another weight on their shoulders. These parents, whose local facilities are underfunded and often neglected, do not need to have an accusatory finger pointed at them by a government whose cabinet members have no idea of what life beneath the poverty line is like. These parents do not wish to strip their children of a healthy lifestyle, but have no choice other than to simply ‘get by’. Rather than guilt-tripping the parents of the 120,000 children living in poverty in the UK, the government ought to put some measures in place to help these vulnerable young people escape the vicious cycle that is poverty. Maybe then, their parents could prioritise sports over sustenance.

A marvellous solution to the obesity ‘crisis’?

Perhaps the government’s solution to the so-called obesity crisis was to try and starve already-deprived children. That was the approach they seemed to take earlier this year when the Conservatives announced that the free school meals scheme would not be extended for disadvantaged pupils throughout the holidays. This move seemed illogical, seeing as it would only push struggling parents to seek out the cheapest options possible for their children just to keep them fed throughout the holiday. Inevitably, the cheapest options are likely to have been the least healthy, only worsening these children’s diets. 

It took Marcus Rashford’s admirable efforts to eventually reverse the policy, but only after the government attempted to distribute food packages to low-income families in place of food vouchers. These packages were insulting, to say the least. The contents were supposed to last several days but were not even a small step towards healthy eating. One photograph appeared to show a ‘package’ containing half a tomato, half a pepper, and a carrot stub, among a few other small items. Understandably, the mother of this particular child said that poorer students were left feeling like ‘they do not matter’, and do not deserve to be fed properly. Another child was reportedly allocated five nearly-stale bread rolls, grated cheese, three packs of crackers, five yoghurts, and some biscuits. 

It is this deliberately neglectful attitude towards the most deprived members of society that gives the impression this anti-obesity drive is not so much to do with tackling ill-health as it is to do with isolating the poor. The government seems to be taking more active measures to starve poor children than to combat obesity. 

The government has also disregarded the traumatic psychological effect this constant weighing could have on young pupils — as if their worth is determined solely by their weight. Pupils going through puberty often gain weight anyway, and children tend to develop at slightly different times in their lives. Changes like these and the wrong policy are factors that can lead to lower self-esteem later in life. What these already-fragile pupils do not need is constant criticism of the confusing transitions they are undergoing. Nor should they feel obliged to constantly scrutinise themselves in the mirror.

By allowing these ‘weigh-ins’ to go ahead, the government is running the risk of causing a spike in eating disorders in a generation of young children who could easily become fixated on their appearances. Doctors have already expressed fears about a ‘tsunami’ of pandemic eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Let’s not add to this recurring pattern.  

The latest plans only highlight the government’s absolute refusal to properly care for those who should be at the top of their priority list: disadvantaged children.

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