Leaders: Children’s health in hands of parents

the percentage of those aged five to 15 eating the correct portions of vegetables and fruit fell last year. Picture: TSPL
the percentage of those aged five to 15 eating the correct portions of vegetables and fruit fell last year. Picture: TSPL
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SCOTLAND in the year 2013 has a gross domestic product that – with or without counting North Sea oil – puts us in the top 20 most wealthy nations on the planet.

Yet that wealth has not bought us health, especially to our children. In fact, the latest official Scottish Health Survey reveals starkly that the health of our young people is actually in danger of deteriorating.

Scottish children are exercising less, while the percentage of those aged five to 15 eating the correct portions of vegetables and fruit fell last year. The political rhetoric from all the parties maintains that we are already doing something about this. Initiatives abound and reports come thick and fast; yet the crisis is not going away.

One obvious explanation of the short-term deterioration in children’s health in Scotland is the economic downturn. Falling real incomes are leading to deteriorating family eating habits, which favour bulk, processed foods. The instant solution points in the direction of free school meals – contentious and expensive as this is. However, while there is a debate to be had regarding free (and better) school meals, the problem of poor children’s health in Scotland is longer term and deeper rooted. A child’s health is a reflection of their family lifestyle. Schools and public intervention cannot substitute in the end for deficiencies or inadequacies in the home.

In this regard, we are not talking about bad or abusive parents. Unfortunately, some of the problem may lie with ordinary, hard-working mums and dads. For instance, the Health Survey reveals that fully a quarter of Scottish adults still smoke.

With smoking banned in public, that only raises the danger of children being subject to passive smoking in the home. Again, only a fifth of the adult population in Scotland eats the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables – so how can children be expected to meet this target? Nor are most Scots physically active, so it is no use thinking children will be. Which brings us to an obvious but radical conclusion: the road to improving children’s health cannot be restricted to dedicated programmes aimed at the young alone. Children’s health in Scotland will only improve dramatically when they have adult role models to follow – in eating, exercising and not smoking. True, there are ways of improving nutrition through public regulation, especially when it comes to the sugar and fat content of processed foods sold in supermarkets. But nothing is ever going to substitute for parents taking personal responsibility when it comes to inculcating good diet and exercise.

This can’t be promoted through preaching. Nor should we denigrate the efforts of hard-working families in Scotland who struggle every day to give their children a good upbringing in difficult circumstances. But the truth is, nothing is going to improve the health of Scotland’s children until parents give a lead.

High degree of opportunism

In America, the speech given to students on their graduation day is called the “commencement” address. The reason is simple: graduation is not an end, but a beginning. It is the beginning of adult life, hopefully the start of a career, and – remember – the initiation of a whole lifetime of learning. Which means any commencement address needs to provide more than platitudes. It needs to inspire, to challenge and to leave the graduating student with a sense of purpose.

Against this high standard, how fairs the videoed “commencement” message from education secretary Michael Russell, which the Scottish Government has brazenly sent to every further education college with the “suggestion” it is shown at graduation ceremonies? Alas, very poorly.

For a start, Mr Russell has invited himself unbidden to speak at these graduations. That is known as taking a liberty. Also, being a politician, his motives are open to question. Doubly so, as he is an SNP minister in the middle of a tough referendum campaign.

Not only is it wrong to politicise commencement ceremonies, but there is every chance that some students – inappropriately but predictably – will respond to Mr Russell’s implicit political advertisement by blowing raspberries and launching paper aeroplanes. The result will be a mockery of what a true graduation ceremony should be.

Michael Russell is a cultured man with a hinterland beyond that of most politicians. He is a writer of note and a film-maker. Better that he waits until invited to make a commencement address – because he is likely to have something worthwhile to impart. But his video party political broadcast should be dismissed for the stunt it is.