Measure the weight of children every year? Bring it on

The Times reports on proposals to make weight loss part of Ofsted’s criteria when ranking schools…

Schools could be forced to weigh pupils for Ofsted obesity checks

Schools could be judged on how well they help their pupils to lose weight as part of the government’s national obesity strategy.

Schools across England could be required to weigh and measure their pupils every year. Those identified as obese would receive intensive and funded support to lose weight, including free gym classes and home visits.

There is nothing new about measuring children’s body mass index in schools. The National Child Measurement Programme has been doing it when children start and finish primary school for more than a decade. We weigh them, measure their height and then, if their body mass index would have put them in or above the 98th percentile in 1990, we send their parents a letter telling them that their child is ‘obese’ or ‘very overweight’.

The letter is generated automatically on a computer. No clinician examines the child, measures their waist or makes any judgement about whether they are carrying too much fat. It is all about the 98th percentile. As I have explained before, there was never any reason to assume that kids in the 98th percentile were obese in 1990. On the contrary, there was every reason to think that childhood obesity was confined to the top percentile, ie. the rate was no more than one per cent.

Thanks to this arbitrary decision, thousands of parents are sent letters chastising them for letting their children grow dangerously fat. In many cases the children are manifestly not overweight, let alone ‘dangerously overweight’. Occasionally, baffled parents get in touch with newspapers to complain about what they assume to be a glitch in the system. See here, here, here, here and here, for example.

But it is not a glitch. The system is working exactly as intended. If the computer says the kid is dangerously overweight, it must be true. If you question the computer, you will be dismissed as someone who has lived in the ‘obesogenic’ environment for so long that you no longer know what a healthy weight looks like. According to the NHS...

Because the number of overweight children has gradually increased, we have slowly become used to it.

It can be difficult to tell if your child is overweight as they may look similar to other children of their age. By recording their measurements, we can get an accurate picture.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, has described parents as being in ‘denial’ and rejects calls to change the tone of the letters:

“I don’t think we should water down those letters,” she said at the Childhood Obesity Summit in London. “There was a move to stop them saying your child is obese because people felt it was offensive and went into denial. But it is a physical description.”

This is positively Kafkaesque. Once the computer has decided that your child is obese, the debate is over. The mere fact that the child is not carrying excess fat is irrelevant. Who are you going to trust, the computer or your own lying eyes?

To add insult to injury, the figures from the National Child Measurement Programme are then published to provide evidence that there is an ‘epidemic’ of childhood obesity. Using the 98th percentile almost certainly generates a vast number of false positives, but not enough for a truly terrifying statistic. And so it is dropped to the 95th percentile.

Here is how we measure obesity for the purpose of sending letters to baffled parents:

And here is how we measure obesity when we want to make the claim, parrotted by The Times today, that ‘one in five children is obese by the time they finish primary school’.

I am not going to say that this is a deliberate attempt to deceive the British public, but it nevertheless amounts to a giant lie. It is very difficult to justify using the 98th percentile to measure child obesity. It clearly mislabels large numbers of perfectly healthy children as ‘obese’. It is impossible to justify inflating the figures further by dropping it to the 95th percentile, and yet that is what all the nationwide statistics are based on.

As for the proposal to measure kids every year and force schools to make ‘obese’ children lose weight, I say bring it on. What better way to expose the absurdity of the current system than by outraging more parents with ridiculous letters and putting skinny kids on a diet?


  • Jennifer

    Good idea! I personally think it’s important to be systematic when it comes to kids’ health, I mix nutrigen vitamixin in pretty much all their food to make sure they get their vitamins

  • revoltingpensioner

    Not much point if there is no control over their Diet !!! Just put them on WWII Rations ! Those Rations wortked well in their day, and there are plenty of us still around today, and NOT Fat either !!!