Features: December 11th, 2009

The greatest health risks that children face today are obesity, mental ill health and sexual problems. Schools are the obvious place to do something about countering these risks and this article explains how the healthy schools initiative is supporting teachers to tackle these problems.

Since its launch ten years ago, Healthy Schools has grown to become one of the most popular non-statutory initiatives in English schools, with more than 6 million children and young people now attending a Healthy School. Over the years, the programme has played a vital role in making the health and well-being agenda a core part of the business of schools – but this year’s tenth anniversary is not just about reflecting on these past successes, it’s also a chance to look to the future as the programme’s next exciting phase is launched.

Therese Gillespie, Director for Children’s Services in South Gloucestershire, is responsible for developing, commissioning and monitoring a wide range of children’s services, and the way in which they impact young people, and believes the success of Healthy Schools is due to its strong partnerships both within the school environment and the wider local community.

The health and well-being agenda is a growing presence in school life and its now commonly accepted that a healthier, happier child will be likely to achieve more in school and in life and less likely to engage in risky behaviour. In South Gloucestershire, 98% of schools have already achieved the National Healthy School Status, and this year have joined schools from across the South West region, in becoming some of the first in the country to pilot the next phase of Healthy Schools.

As part of this, schools in South Gloucestershire have been working to promote long term positive behavioural change with a particular focus on the area’s challenges around obesity, mental health and sexual health.

Therese Gillespie explains, “I believe the Healthy Schools enhancement model is a great way forwards for all Healthy Schools. It encourages schools to continue building on the foundations for improved health and learning which they have already put in place over the past ten years, by identifying and addressing the very specific health and well-being issues and needs affecting their school and their community. It then closely supports schools with the tools and partnerships needed to introduce targeted interventions and to achieve positive meaningful outcomes on these issues.”

Active for life – tackling obesity

For example, schools in South Gloucestershire have identified children in challenging circumstances that are obese or at risk of becoming obese and have now implemented ‘Active for Life’ in fifteen different schools. ‘Active for Life’ is an obesity prevention programme for Year 5 students, which encourages them to eat a balanced diet and reduce inactive behaviours, such as watching TV or playing computer games.

The ‘Active for Life’ sessions are very specific and interactive, and encourage participating children to reflect on their behaviour. A physical activity based lesson, for instance, could include a ‘Fit Check’ journal where the children can draw and compare graphs showing how much time they are ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ for during each day. They are also challenged to set personal goals and to think about the support they may need to achieve these targets, such as parental help with walking to school.

Therese Gillespie says, “The success level we have had with this initiative has come down to the local partnerships Healthy Schools has enabled us to build. It’s not about asking our teachers to suddenly become specialists in health promotion, but about helping them to draw on wider local resources and expertise. ‘Active for Life’ was led by the local Primary Care Trust, and the University of Bristol also provided close support in helping us analyse local data and identify ways in which to engage parents.”

So far, the scheme to tackle obesity has been well received by participating schools, students and families in South Gloucestershire, and an initial evaluation from the University of Bristol showed that in the first six months of ‘Active for Life’, there was evidence of clear behaviour change and improved health outcomes amongst Year 5 students. For example, there was a 5% reduction in the amount of time the children watched TV or spent in front of a computer, throughout the week and during their weekends.

To keep building upon this positive momentum, the University of Bristol is continuing to evaluate ‘Active for Life’ amongst participating schools in South Gloucestershire, by monitoring the height, weight and waist circumference of students, as well as through activity monitors, and sedentary activity questionnaires and interviews with students.

Mental health

South Gloucestershire’s Healthy Schools are also putting measures in place to identify and address the sensitive and challenging issues of mental health. Therese Gillespie explains; “Healthy Schools is also helping us to implement some important initiatives which not only equip schools to tackle mental health problems amongst children and young people, but also break down negative stereotypes and perceptions.

“Again, we’re achieving this through partnership, by building a bridge of support between schools and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Strengthening these links has meant we are able to give our students greater access to health professionals who can offer them guidance and advice on looking after their emotional health and well-being, and our teachers are better positioned to identify issues and signpost children and young people to further help when they need to.”

She adds, “Making children and young people feel good about themselves, and promoting positive messages around their self- esteem and levels of aspiration is also a key part of our work in Healthy Schools. As a result, we have been introducing a range of intervention programmes to help raise young people’s aspirations, particularly in some of our secondary schools where we have identified high number of young people in challenging circumstances who are at risk of becoming teenage parents.

“Part of this work has involved getting young people to explore their hopes and aspirations for their futures and to set goals for themselves. But when we began to introduce these initiatives under the Healthy Schools enhancement model, we found that many of our Primary Schools were also interested in developing them for younger children too, which is something we hadn’t really anticipated.

Teenage pregnancy

“Although the Healthy Schools enhancement model is still in the early days of development, the fact that we have Primary Schools coming to us and saying teenage pregnancy is an issue that they should be addressing too by teaching children and young people about self esteem and goal setting as an early intervention, is just fantastic. For me, this illustrates just how much of a positive impact we’re having through Healthy Schools, and just how far we have come in embedding this ‘holistic’ ‘whole child’ ethos in our schools.”

Changing behavior

Therese Gillespie concludes, “I think Healthy Schools has been successful because it supports schools in creating school environments which really encourage positive changes in the lives of children and young people on issues around their physical and emotional health, and because it empowers young people with the skills and knowledge to make those improved life choices for themselves.”

“The Healthy Schools enhancement model is an exciting journey that schools throughout the country are just embarking on. It’s certainly not a ‘quick fix’ project, but drawing from our experiences in south Gloucestershire, I believe it’s a timely and much needed long-term programme which can help support positive behaviour changes over time amongst children and young people on some of today’s most challenging public health issues.

It’s also one which I believe will become increasingly embedded into everyday school culture and I have every confidence that this next phase of Healthy Schools will be a great asset, not only for schools, but also for a wide range of local organisations and services working to achieve improved outcomes for children and young people.”

For more information about the new Healthy Schools enhancement, please visit: www.healthyschools.gov.uk