Features: June 26th, 2009

By Jeremy Wight

Health, wellbeing and attainment are closely bound up with each other and all three have to be promoted at the same time. Poverty of aspiration underlies failures in areas such as teenage pregnancy, drugs and alcohol. The National Healthy Schools Programme, which tackles all these issues, is celebrating its tenth anniversary year. It has become well-established as one of the country’s most widely embraced non-statutory government initiatives in schools.

In Sheffield, our involvement with the Programme spans across its full ten year history, and over this time, I think our schools have taken some undeniably healthy steps forwards. Today, the impact of our Healthy Schools team can be seen in our schools kitchens and canteens, through the fact that more children and young people are being active than ever before, in our approach to subjects such as sex and relationship education, and throughout almost every aspect of the school day.

Health is also about wellbeing and attainment

There’s a whole range of health promotion activities and initiatives taking place now in our schools under the Healthy Schools banner, which are positively impacting our children and young people every day. But I think that the most important change that Healthy Schools has helped to bring about in Sheffield’s schools has been an increased recognition and wider understanding of the important links between health, wellbeing and attainment, as well as closer local health and education partnership working.

Ten years ago, if you talked to a teacher about children’s health, they would think why are you talking to me and not the school nurse?’ But now there’s a very different response, and the fact that we have 100% of our schools in Sheffield involved in Healthy Schools on an entirely voluntary basis, really highlights this. The big picture today is that health and wellbeing is now very firmly on the agenda in our schools, and I think the National Healthy Schools Programme has been key in bringing about this change in perception.

Addressing key issues to bring change

One of the other things that I really appreciate about the Healthy Schools programme is that the messages children and young people learn about things like smoking, diet, drugs and exercise can also extend beyond the school day to impact on their parents, siblings, peers and wider community as they go home to talk about what they have learned .

But the consequences of poverty remain very prevalent in some of our schools, and in Sheffield we certainly aren’t immune from any of the big public health challenges for young people that are regularly hitting the headlines such as teenage pregnancy, smoking, and young people’s sexual health. Although the overall numbers of young smokers has significantly decreased, it’s still a real concern that a number of our young people take up smoking year on year, and it’s still the biggest killer in our society. Yet we know that people who don’t smoke before they are 18, are much less likely to pick up the habit later in life, so it’s absolutely vital to tackle this issue during the school years – and Healthy Schools is providing the thinking, resources, and specialist support to help us do just that.

Improving diet and reducing childhood obesity is definitely an area which is also high on our agenda. There are still far too many children who don’t have a good diet, because their parents can’t afford to pay for good food, or simply don’t know enough about how to cook and prepare healthy meals. But many of our Healthy Schools have already been making good inroads on the issue. For example, some children have been growing their own vegetables in schools, so students have been planting and tending vegetables as they grow, and then harvesting and cooking them into healthy meals in the schools’ kitchens. It’s been brilliant to see how this has developed children’s understanding and really had an impact on their diet and health. There are also numerous breakfast clubs and cookery classes running in schools across the city, backed up by healthy eating policies that cover the entire school day, so the picture is improving all the time.

Overall, I think that although we still have some way to go on these issues, we have come a long way. For me, the best measure of the impact of a programme like Healthy Schools which aims to bring about longer term change, is always to ask what improvements or interventions wouldn’t be taking place in our schools right now, if it wasn’t there? How much worse might some of these problems be?

Another issue that sits closely with poverty, is a poverty of aspiration. If children don’t envisage themselves as successful young adults, they don’t link their success in the future to whether they do well at school. Therefore, another major part of the work of our Healthy Schools team has been to support work addressing the relative underperformance of some of our children and young people in Sheffield, especially in terms of our GCSE results, which are not as good as they should be. Healthy Schools really supports work on improving educational attainment, because a physically and emotionally healthy child will perform better in school.

This also really overlaps with our work around reducing teenage pregnancy, because teenage pregnancy is a mechanism whereby a cycle of deprivation is constantly replicated in our communities. We know that teenage parents will be less likely to complete education, get good jobs and do well in life, and so their children will grow up in households where there aren’t aspirations for success, and in turn, they are also more likely to become teenage mums or dads themselves. Using the Healthy Schools framework, we’ve done a lot of consultation with young people on this issue and have introduced an innovative peer education system within our schools, where older children are now talking to younger children about some of the difficult life choices they might face in the future around sex and relationships, smoking, drugs and alcohol. It’s something which is also proving very popular with parents, who have really grasped the idea that teaching their children about these issues in school can really improve their health, wellbeing, and life chances.

Making health promotion routine

Looking forwards, it’s really a matter of embedding more of these kinds of initiatives into the week by week and term by term activities of every school, so that the whole ethos behind Healthy Schools becomes a more and more natural part of teaching and of everyday school life. We are also looking to expand some of our more targeted interventions such as the 125 Flower Health Programme which works with specific vulnerable groups of young people under the umbrella of Healthy Schools, in order to ensure that no child is left behind, and that all of our children and young people receive an education today, that will lead to a healthier, happier tomorrow.

For more information, please visit: www.healthyschools.gov.uk
Jeremy Wight is Director of Public Health at NHS Sheffield and Sheffield City Council.