Schools are to send parents written notification of their children's weight. Government-commissioned research, seen by The Independent on Sunday, reveals that obesity is a far bigger problem than previously thought, and the scheme is an attempt to raise awareness among parents.
Rules to be introduced when the new school year starts in September will see parents automatically sent "fat reports" showing the weight of a child at age four to five and 10 to 11.
Previously, if parents wanted the information, they had to ask for it, but independent research for the Department of Health reveals that too many parents are ignoring the problem. Thousands undermined the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) by keeping their children off school the day their class was due to be weighed. Now the information will be sent unless parents actually ask not to receive it.
The new measures demonstrate the scale of ministerial alarm over the failure to curb rising levels of obesity in Britain. Officials fear they may still be underestimating the full magnitude of the problem. The most recent figures show that one in 10 children aged four and five are obese and a further 13 per cent are classified as overweight. The percentage of 10 to 11-year-olds classified as obese stood at 17.5 per cent, while a further 14.2 per cent were judged to be overweight.
According to internal documents seen by The IoS, an independent study found that, despite a massive government campaign to produce a comprehensive picture of the problem, the results "may underestimate the true population prevalence of obesity and overweight at national, regional and local level".
The Government is now under pressure to re-evaluate the programme and will order schools and local health chiefs to take it more seriously.
In addition to the notification of their children's weight, parents will also receive information about healthy eating and physical activity, and details about local support services.
The extension of the scheme follows a renewed call by Alan Johnson last week to step up the campaign to combat obesity at all ages. The Secretary of State for Health clashed with David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who earlier this month said being fat was often a lifestyle choice.
The British Medical Association predicts that more than a quarter of all children will be obese by 2020, and that children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Other measures being introduced in September include the requirement for all primary schools to comply with nutritional standards on portions of vegetables served to children.
Paul Sacher, a paediatric dietician at the Childhood Nutrition Research Centre in London, said many parents needed help in identifying that their children were overweight in the first place.
"There is a major problem with parents' perception of their children's weight. As all children are getting bigger, it is becoming more difficult for parents to work out whether their children are overweight by just looking at them and comparing them to other kids," he said. "The only way we can work out whether children are getting bigger is to weigh them all, and the only way we can ensure that something is done about it is by making sure everyone concerned knows about their measurements."
Dr Sacher, who founded the Mend (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition ... Do It!) programme, which aims to educate families affected by obesity, added: "If I was a parent I would want to know if my child was overweight or obese, then I could do something about it."
However, the Tory frontbencher Nigel Waterson, who has complained about the Government's "nanny-state" approach to obesity, said he had grave reservations about the plans: "I am not sure everyone will immediately have a problem with the idea of this information being sent to parents, but I have a problem with the Government trying to impose regulations on families. These are issues for families to sort out."
'I used to play computer games rather than sport'
By Ian Griggs
Tavis Hide, eight, weighed 9st 7lb at his heaviest. The average weight for an eight-year-old boy is between 3st and 5st 8lb. After a 10-week weight-loss programme, he is now a stone lighter and feels much happier about himself.
"My weight before made me upset and play more computer games rather than sporty things," says Tavis (pictured left, with his mother, Anne-Marie). "I used to find sport difficult and I didn't see the point. People used to call me fat and take the mickey but, half the time, they were fat themselves. But it still made me feel bad about myself."
He attended the Mend Programme, a free national course to help children lose weight. "I found the talks [about nutrition] boring but I loved the sport. We would play dodgeball, football and basketball. I started losing weight and I feel more confident now and still do some sports, such as swimming and running. Now I feel very nice about myself because I'm not in the book of the world's fattest men any more and I think I look good when I look in the mirror."Reuse content