Malnourished children from poorer families do not want to get changed for PE lessons because they are ashamed of being underweight, teachers have said.
They are also being put off from taking part in sports at school because they are embarrassed by their old worn-out PE kits, according to the largest education union in the UK.
PE teachers warned that children living in poverty are becoming “malnourished” and “unfit” through a lack of food and physical activity.
With concerns about childhood obesity dominating the media, Sue Wilkinson, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, warned that there was a danger of ignoring these “unwell” school pupils which teachers said were increasing in numbers.
Speaking to Tes newspaper, Ms Wilkinson said they were supporting their members "whose kids wouldn’t change and they thought it was about kit, but they were actually hiding the fact that they were so skinny.”
She added that these children were “underweight and malnourished” due to a lack of food at home.
The news came as the country’s biggest network of food banks appealed for donations to deal, with an increasing demand from school children suffering holiday hunger during the summer holidays.
Nearly four in five teachers warned that holiday hunger is affecting more children now than it did three years ago in a survey released this week.
Ros McNeil, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said teachers had noticed growing number of pupils turning up to school embarrassed by PE kits that are falling apart.
She told The Independent: “Feeling embarrassed about their kit – or feeling embarrassed that they look thin – they are going to recognise that they may stand out and that is going to put them off. And that means they will not want to take part in physical activity.”
Sport’s Day can be a particularly revealing time for many teachers as children living in poverty look “shorter and less physically able” than their peers when lined up in their PE kits, Ms McNeil added.
She said: “Teachers are very clear at the moment that it is getting worse and it is as bad as they remember it. Teachers are deeply worried about that.”
Ms McNeil warned that school funding cuts have made it harder for schools to support these disadvantaged children. “It is legitimate for us to ask schools to counter child poverty but it is national government policy that has to reduce and end child poverty,” she added.
Ali Oliver, chief executive at the charity Youth Sport Trust, told The Independent: “It is heart breaking to hear that children may be missing out on PE due to the shame of being underweight. From our own research with Women in Sport we know that concerns about body image and lack of privacy in changing rooms can be a real barrier to young people enjoying PE, especially girls.
“Today’s generation of children are less active than they’ve ever been. As a result, we risk a generation missing out on the benefits of an active lifestyle which can help to improve physical health, promote mental wellbeing and develop vital life skills like teamwork, leadership and resilience.”
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