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Schools key to addressing long term health inequalities, say experts 


Professor Jon Wright

Around 300 delegates from 24 countries attended the first international Whole-School Physical Activity (#WSPA2024) conference at the University of Bradford. 

The resounding message from experts was that schools are the primary vehicle to change deep-rooted socio-economic inequalities that lead to lower life-expectancies and poorer health outcomes in later life for many children. 

One model already adopted by 50 schools in Bradford - and 200 across the UK - is Creating Active Schools, led by the University of Bradford and the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, which started in 2020 with input from headteachers, governors and education experts. It aims to encourage teachers to put physical activity at the heart of school life. 

Dr Anna Chalkley

Pictured above: Dr Anna Chalkley

What can schools do?

The WSPA conference heard from experts in a broad range of fields, including academics, teachers, psychologists, locality and national partners, and health researchers. 

All were of one voice: that, as a society, we are simply not doing enough to facilitate today’s children to lead healthy lives. 

Part of the problem, argue experts, is the narrow focus on academic subjects, and that physical activity is often designated ‘sport’, which presents barriers for many children. 

Conference co-organiser Dr Andrew Daly-Smith, from the University of Bradford, summed up that sentiment during his opening address, citing the Government’s Schools Sports and Activity Plan (published July 2023). 

“In the Ministerial foreword, the word ‘sport’ appears 35 times, the word ‘exercise’ appears once,” he said. “We need to reshape that paradigm. Sport can be a barrier for many children. We need to find ways to enable children to be more active throughout the whole school day, not just in break times but also in lessons. Schools need to be part of a whole-systems approach. Creating Active Schools is the first framework designed to do this.” 

Balloon with Whole Schools Physical Activity Conference logo on

10-year life expectancy difference in Bradford

Professor John Wright, Chief Investigator at the Born in Bradford project (pictured top), the world’s largest and longest-running social study, which is tracking 30,000 children as they age, said: “How important is physical activity? We can see the roots of inequality emerging in childhood, so we need to start early.” 

Mark Mon-Williams, who also works on the Born in Bradford project and who is Professor of Psychology at the Bradford Institute of Health Research (whose main affiliation is with the University of Leeds), told the conference: “The reality is if you are born near Bradford Royal Infirmary, you are likely to die 10 years earlier than if you were born in Wharfedale. This is unacceptable in the UK in 2024. 

“All the data shows children born into poorer families are 13 times more likely to have poorer health outcomes by the age of 70. It is absolutely imperative we start to support young people and change the systems to enable them to live healthy and prosperous lives.” 

University of Bradford health report

According to a recent Child of the North and Centre for Young Lives report led by the University of Bradford, poor health costs the UK £7.4bn a year.  

Ann Longfield CBE, who wrote the foreword to that report, told the conference: “We know children are struggling to stay healthy as they grow up. There is a lack of places to play, children [are] often struggling with weight issues and that’s something that has to change. Schools are at the heart of a whole reset that needs to happen.” 

British entrepreneur and children's welfare campaigner Paul Lindley OBE said: “We know not enough children take 60 minutes of physical activity per day, that break times in schools have been reduced by 60 minutes a week over the last generation, that it’s difficult for children to have five fruits and veg a day, so we are about making travel to school more active and meal times more appealing.” 

University of Bradford Vice-Chancellor Professor Shirley Congdon noted: “The University of Bradford is laser focused on making a difference but in order to deliver a whole-systems change, you need a whole-systems approach, which means we have to share our successes. We know research really matters. Despite the current funding challenges facing HE, one thing we cannot stop doing is working together.” 

Dr Andrew Daly-Smith

Pictured above: Dr Andrew Daly-Smith

Groundswell of support

Conference co-organiser Dr Anna Chalkley, from the University of Bradford, said the conference had been a huge success, adding she hoped it would foster long-term change. 

“A year ago, we were thinking about organising this conference and we were wondering how many people would come. To have 300 delegates from across the globe, including teachers, national partners and researchers gives us a unique opportunity to evolve our thinking about what whole- school physical activity really is. This will help us influence leaders not just in the UK but also internationally.” 

Learning shared at the conference will be synthesised and translated into a policy brief for Government to help value and prioritise a whole school approach to physical activity for children and young people.