Plans to tackle child health inequalities caused by school summer holidays will get underway this year as ukactive launches a major new pilot with up to 50 schools.

The not-for-profit health organisation wants to combat levels of physical inactivity among children during the summer holidays, as well as addressing ‘holiday hunger’, learning loss, personal development and mental health in young people.

Yesterday (22 January), it pledged to work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the Department for Education following last week’s announcement by new education minister Nadhim Zahawi for a government programme to tackle hunger.

The government’s proposals were revealed during a debate which ultimately declined a private members’ bill by Labour MP Frank Field that would have required councils to facilitate programmes to provide free meals and activities for children during the holidays.

“We want every child to reach their potential, and healthy meals can contribute to their development and improved attainment,” Zahawi said.

“Understanding children’s current access to healthy meals and enriching activity is the most effective ways of promoting it, and the costs associated are crucial. That’s why we’ll launch research into the issue, including a targeted pilot programme.

“Academic standards are rising and we’re building on this success by supporting the country’s most disadvantaged children, including through free school meals and a £26m investment over the next three years to kick-start or improve breakfast clubs in at least 1,500 schools.

”While the department's research will begin immediately, its pilot will not take place until 2019, once costs and locations have been assessed.

A recent study from the ukactive Research Institute showed that summer holidays are driving a class divide in fitness levels, causing disproportionate levels of harm to poorer pupils by fuelling physical inactivity, malnutrition and poorer academic attainment.

The government’s announcement follows a two-year campaign from the body to make unhealthy school holidays a priority for government and schools.

“This is an important commitment from government which recognises the impact and challenges of summer holidays, especially for families from low-income backgrounds,” said Adrian Packer, a ukactive board member and chief executive of CORE Education Trust, which runs six schools in Birmingham.

“We at ukactive look forward to working shoulder to shoulder with government and child health professionals this summer to support their plans for 2019 onwards to give young people a brighter future.

“This goal cannot be achieved by working in silos – we need a whole-community approach and the programme that ukactive is developing can be a great catalyst for setting this into motion.

”Speaking during a House of Lords debate on child health last week, ukactive chair Tanni Grey-Thompson said that only an holistic approach which covers physical activity, nutrition and mental wellbeing can truly transform the health of children.

The inactivity crisis we’re facing, coupled with things like poor health, is severely limiting our children’s opportunities and this cuts across a number of government departments,” she said.

“This is a really important area where cross-government work is absolutely vital.

”She pointed to ukactive research showing that during the summer break, the poorest 25 per cent of children experience a drop in fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25 per cent.

Details of ukactive’s ‘summer camp’-style operation for 2018 are expected to be revealed soon, with the organisation planning to scale the programme nationally from 2019.