‘More damage than good’: how weighing children at school could have a negative impact on mental health

According to Public Health England (PHE), tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges currently faced in England

Children in Reception and Year 6 classes in England have been routinely weighed and measured in schools since 2006 to assess overweight and obesity levels.

The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) was halted last year due to the Covid pandemic, but is now set to return in September in a bid to reduce the rise in obesity.

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But does weighing children help achieve the Government’s aim of reducing levels of obesity in the country - or can it actually do more harm than good?

Children in Reception and Year 6 classes in England have been routinely weighed and measured in schools since 2006 (Graphic: Kim Mogg)

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‘Reduces children to numbers and statistics’

According to Public Health England (PHE), tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges currently faced in England, with around two-thirds (63%) of adults above a healthy weight, and half of these living with obesity.

One in three children leaving primary school in England is also overweight, with one in five living with obesity.

The PHE says that the NCMP is “an excellent source of surveillance data which helps increase understanding of the patterns and trends in underweight, healthy weight, overweight, and obesity among the child population.”

However, although the programme has been in place for 15 years, some health experts and parents have expressed concerns over the potential damage that the scheme could have.

Jennifer Snow, from south east Essex, refused for her son to be weighed at school shortly after the scheme first came into place.

Ms Snow said when she was notified that her son - who was around nine at the time - was to be weighed in school she was “really cross”.

“This wasn't a scheme for you to opt-in to if you were concerned about your child's weight, this was a blanket scheme, regardless of your child's health, medical history, or other circumstances, and the main purpose of it was to provide the NHS with statistics,” said Ms Snow.

Ms Snow wrote to the school to notify them that her son would not be weighed at school, as it “reduced children to numbers and statistics.”

She also noted that eating disorders can begin to manifest from a young age and said that “this weighing was pitched at exactly the wrong age group.”

“If Public Health England or whoever really wanted to do something about obesity, they'd pay for school nutritionists and there would be appropriate social support for struggling families,” added Ms Snow.

‘It is likely to cause more damage than good’

Psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker said she “fundamentally disagrees” with children being weighed at school and that she “can only see it as a negative.”

Dr Baker explained that weight is just one metric by which we can measure physical wellbeing, and if the school is not equipped with the right support staff, training, and overall wellbeing programme, then “it is likely to cause more damage than good.”

For example, children being measured would need to know and understand that muscle weighs more than fat, that people have different builds and that this then impacts weight, said Dr Baker.

Shame and comparison is the biggest mental health implication of being weighed, she said, explaining children “can very easily feel ashamed of themselves and how much they weigh,” especially when weight “isn’t placed within a wider framework of health and wellbeing.”

Children grow and develop at different rates, but if children find that they weigh more than another when they compare after being weighed at school, this could “lead to issues with confidence, and potential anxiety,” Dr Baker said.

“Comparison could then also lead to an increase in eating disorders not only amongst girls but also boys,” added Dr Baker.

“Focusing on a single number, at the exclusion of the wider picture distorts reality.”

On the other hand, Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, founder of parenting community GetTheVillage, said that if the measurements of children are taken at school “once a year or every two years as part of developmental records of height and other measurements, that are sent to parents confidentially, then I see no harm.”

But Dr Ben-Ari noted that schools should also find creative ways to teach and model a healthy lifestyle, including helping develop a love of sport in children and making sure that they are active on a daily basis.

“School dinners need to reflect this healthy, balanced lifestyle as well,” added Dr Ben-Ari.

However, a primary school teacher from the Scottish Highlands - where children are also weighed in Primary 1 as part of Scotland’s child health programme - said weighing children in school “is such a dangerous prospect.”

The teacher - who wished to remain anonymous - said weighing children “only fuels body shame and places more importance on weight.”

“Weighing children in school, having them feel embarrassed or ashamed and comparing their weights to their peers are all things that can contribute to developing an eating disorder,” the teacher added.