Tags: Citizenship and PSHE | PE and Sport | PSHE & Citizenship Coordinator | Teaching and Learning | Well-being

Fred Redwood reports on a fitness profiling computer system for schools and colleges

Each year PSHE teaching moves into ever more sensitive territory. Subjects such as drugs, drink and sexual behaviour are met head-on and, following the Jamie Oliver campaign, healthy eating gets similar uncompromising treatment. Now, at Monkseaton Community High School, the students’ physical fitness is to be the subject of serious inspection.

At this North Tyneside 13-19 school, the headteacher, Dr Paul Kelley, isn’t simply preaching mens sana in corpore sano, he is buying in personal trainers and the very latest fitness profiling computer system to ensure that his pupils reach their optimum level of fitness. So why is he putting school funds into the kind of body-pampering usually found only in a health club?

‘I was aware of the high-tech fitness training being carried out by our successful football team,’ he says. ‘And one day it occurred to me that it was wrong that only our top athletes were getting this kind of support. Our other, less fit pupils deserved the same – particularly with childhood obesity being so widespread.’

At that stage Kelley turned to Microsoft for advice and arranged for the whole project to be monitored by the Open University. The scheme, which was started this year, involves the children receiving what Kelley calls a ‘fitness and wellbeing MOT’. It is alarmingly rigorous.

Analysing fitness

Each child stands on a fitness ‘analyser’ in bare feet, clutching two hand grips and a miniscule electric current is pulsated through the body. This is totally painless and won’t even be noticed. As the electrical pulse moves through the body it meets resistance. The analyser is able to recognise differing types of resistance and can calculate what is causing it, be it muscle, fat, water, minerals or proteins. It is then able to give extremely accurate readings on an individual’s body composition, detailing how much fat and water they have in their bodies. The analyser assesses the skeletal mass and provides readings on bone density and protein levels.

These readings are then applied to known recommended ratios for height, weight, muscle, fat and water content specific to the individual. The analyser also calculates muscle development for each limb and the trunk so that specific parts of the body can be targeted for improvement (see box).

‘The tests produce a rounded score out of 100 which is measured against European standards of fitness,’ says Kelley. ‘A child who scores 90+ is super-fit; those scoring under 50 should take action.’

Encouraging involvement

The next stage in the project will be the most revolutionary. Kelley is to draft in coaches from a local health spa at Amberley Park, Cranlington, at a cost of £8,000, and they will work with the children in groups of 20, advising the youngsters on their individual diets and the right forms of fitness training to maximise their fitness. Letters will go out to parents of children in the middle or low band of fitness, advising them to do extra classes, which are to be held three times a week after school.

There is a hint of ‘fitness evangelism’ about the whole scheme. Kelley even wants to involve the staff in the project. ‘I think it would set a marvellous example if teaching staff could be seen working on their fitness, side by side with the students,’ he says. ‘And why restrict it to academic staff? It could be a whole-school enterprise, with support staff, caterers and clerical workers all benefiting.’ 

Kelley and the others behind the Monkseaton project believe that similar fitness projects will soon be run nationwide. ‘Lots of schools have the underlying technology necessary in place to run similar programmes,’ says Steve Beswick, Microsoft’s director of education. ‘It would be relatively inexpensive and it would certainly be popular because children are so fascinated by technology.’

However, we can also expect some to accuse the schools of being too intrusive by taking on the role of the parent. ‘That accusation could be valid but for one thing,’ says Kelley. ‘There’s absolutely nothing compulsory about the healthy eating advice or extra classes we make available.’ Maintaining that there is ‘a definite link between good health and academic performance,’ Kelley contends, ‘I just want to see healthy and happy children with better habits leaving my school to become healthy and happy adults.’

Pupil case studies

Chris Jewel, 18, is one of the school’s football team who pioneered this project. Eighteen months ago, by his own admission, Jewel was no stranger to a post-match kebab and a lager, so when he was monitored he was disappointed with his overall score of 80 on the fitness scale. ‘But I took notice of the trainers who advised me to increase the intensity of my training, concentrate on lifting weights and to eat more salads and pasta instead of junk food,’ he says. ‘Now I get readings of 91 and my speed and all-round game in football has improved a lot.’

Abi Toon, 17, another Monkseaton pupil, spent eight weeks in the summer holidays on an identical regime at a fitness camp, losing three stone in weight. She believes that if she’d had this kind of fitness advice at school when she was aged 12 or 13, then she wouldn’t have developed problems with weight, although she does have reservations about how the scheme should be presented to students. ‘This is a great idea but the project must be handled sensitively,’ she says. ‘It won’t be successful if the trainers make a big issue of each pupil’s weight and body mass because that could lead to teasing and bullying.’

Fred Redwood is a freelance education and features writer.

First published in Learning for Life, March 2007

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