Originally published Jan. 14, 2021 in The Telegraph.
By Jeremy Wilson
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children’s inactivity has been laid bare in a major new report, which shows that more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are failing to meet recommended daily activity levels.
Underlining the urgency of Telegraph Sport’s Keep Kids Active campaign, Sport England’s annual Active Lives survey also detailed the specific impact of lockdown restrictions between May and July, when more than a million fewer children took part in sporting activities.
It specifically found that around 200,000 more boys were failing to meet the chief medical officer’s guidance of averaging at least an hour of daily activity compared to that same period in 2019.
Girls' activity levels, however, increased compared to the previous year, as they were statistically less impacted by organised team sport being so restricted, even if an overall gender gap did remain and fewer girls than boys were still active through the year.
The report looks at the entire period from September 2019 until July 2020 and, perhaps most alarming of all, recorded that 200,000 more children were defined as “less active” than the previous year, with almost a third not even averaging 30 minutes of daily activity.
Lower activity levels, which were affected by weather-induced disruptions in February as well as Covid-19 restrictions from March, were especially pronounced among black children and those from less affluent families.
There were also specific drops in the numbers of children who can now swim at least a length, with organised sport and team activities the hardest hit and worrying dips in confidence and competence, which are key components of physical literacy.
More positively, the numbers of children walking or cycling increased and that helped ensure that the overall decline in children meeting recommended daily activity levels across the whole year only dipped from 46.8 percent to 44.9 percent.
Lisa O’Keefe, the Insight Director at Sport England, acknowledged that the Covid-19 disruption had “an unprecedented impact upon physical literacy" but said that reductions were “minimised” by the work of parents, carers, teachers and volunteers.
“It has demonstrated how important it is to get sport and physical activity back up and running both in and out of school, just as soon as it is safe to do so,” she said. “It also reaffirms the importance of what children are telling us. To provide choice and a fun environment is vital.”
With most children now again facing a prolonged period out of school, Telegraph Sport’s campaign has specifically called for the government to implement a mandatory virtual physical education curriculum; create a centralised online hub with age-related activities and advice for parents; prioritise opening up kids' activity at the earliest opportunity; deliver a plan to put PE on a par with core subjects when schools return and open school facilities as community hubs during holidays to help close the social divide.
The campaign is backed by numerous leading athletes, governing bodies and influential sporting figures amid fears that the current lockdown, and the widespread closure of sports facilities, is having an even more acute impact.
“Sport England’s research confirms that activity levels which were already too low have declined further during the last year” said Ali Oliver, the chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust. “Worryingly, the real picture for young people now may be even worse during this current period of remote learning for many, and bad weather.
“This research highlights the urgent need for a bold national plan to stop the decline in young people’s development and wellbeing, Turning the tide on inactivity and guaranteeing every child the life-changing benefits that come from 60 daily minutes of sport and activity should now be central to our national recovery plan.”
Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, said that schools were providing “innovative remote teaching of PE and physical activity” during the lockdown. In response to Telegraph Sport’s campaign, the government has already pledged to make grassroots sports and gyms a priority when restrictions ease.
Jack Shakespeare, the director of children, young people, families and research at ukactive, said that it was “positive to see overall reductions in activity minimised” given the exceptional circumstances but that “stark inequalities” had been exacerbated and a national plan was now vital.
Narrowed gender divide
There was another sizeable gap between the numbers of boys and girls meeting recommended daily guidelines, with 213,000 fewer girls active for an average of at least 60 minutes a day. The gap, however, narrowed, and it was notable that there was actually an increase in the number of girls who were active between May and July last year. This was especially pronounced among girls in Years 1 and 2 at school, but also at the older ages between 14 and 16, who had previously been the least active. According to Lisa O’Keefe, Sport England’s insight director, this was primarily driven by an increase in fitness activities, which proliferated online during the pandemic. “We know that many boys found it harder to adjust to the narrower options,” she said. “Although the choice was narrow, what was available suited girls better than perhaps what they had access to before. They also had time to do it at a point in the day that suited them. This points absolutely to the importance of choice.”
Children from more affluent families were again the most likely to be active, with fewer than 40 percent from lower affluent families physically active for a daily average of at least 60 minutes.
There were also stark differences between ethnic groups, with the pandemic having the most marked impact on the activity levels of black boys. Just 43 percent met activity guidelines compared to 60 percent in the previous year. There was also a sharp drop in activity levels among children from mixed ethnic backgrounds who, according to previous research, are relatively highly represented in many of the activities which were curtailed, such as dance, football, swimming and athletics. O’Keefe said that there was a correlation between people living in urban areas and being less likely to be active, due to factors that might include space and opportunity.
Sport England established 1,100 after-school satellite clubs shortly before the pandemic, of which 30 percent were in the most deprived areas in England and almost a third of the 190,000 participants were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.
There were significant changes in the type of activity, largely due to the Covid-19 restrictions and also bad weather just prior to the pandemic. Participation in team sports went down eight percent and there were also significant drops in active play among children. This was partially countered by increases in walking and cycling. Swimming has been severely impacted and Swim England have warned of a potential “lost generation” of young people who will miss out on simply learning how to swim. It is a mandatory part of the curriculum in primary schools but, with many pools facing closure and only some reopening when lockdown restrictions did ease, thousands missed out. Swimming clubs and lessons that did resume could often only offer partial programmes. The biggest drop has been among children in Years 1 and 2, with only 29 per cent able to swim 25 metres unaided compared with 35 percent in the previous year. Swim England has warned that as many as 200 community swimming pools face permanent closure.
Lockdowns take toll
There was a drop of around 100,000 active children in the period between May and July last year, with organised sporting activities down by 16 percent and more than a million fewer children taking part in organised sport. This was partially counterbalanced by gains in walking, cycling and fitness activities, such as the Joe Wicks workout, but also did not capture the periods when restrictions were at the most severe between March and May. Previous data pointed to a drop to below 20 percent of children meeting daily activity guidelines during the first lockdown. Sport England were unable to survey children until restrictions were starting to ease and activities were returning. There is concern, then, that the impact of this third lockdown, particularly during the winter, will be even more severe. The Schools Active Movement said on Thursday that the survey reflected the “amazing effort” to keep children active in extremely challenging circumstances, but that the Government’s School Sport and Activity Action plan now need to deliver “accountable ring-fenced funding” for schools to prioritise PE and physical activity as part of the national recovery from Covid.