Healthier, happier children

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In just ten years, Healthy Schools has successfully established itself as the most widely embraced non-statutory government initiative in English schools, an achievement which Richard Sangster, Head of the National Healthy Schools Programme, believes has helped create a firm foundation for moving the health and wellbeing agenda further on in schools...

The health and wellbeing agenda is a growing presence in school life; activities that were once pioneering good practice - such as integrated PSHE education or children’s water bottles on desks - are now common place.  Part of that success is down to the Healthy School programme and the tremendous achievements that it has made, and as we celebrate our 10th anniversary year we are going from strength to strength. There is also great appetite for this agenda from schools; the fact that we have achieved 99% participation in the programme against our 100% target, more than six months early is testament to that.

I think that part of the reason for the success of Healthy Schools is that its ethos sits at ease with the reason why teachers, headteachers, nurses, and the broader school workforce do what they do. People go into education because they care about children and young people and want them to succeed in their lives and that includes them being healthy. Although, we’ve achieved an enormous amount through the commitment of schools and health care professionals, long term behavioural change around key public health issues, such as obesity, is not something that can be done overnight – it’s a constant challenge and one in which schools will continue to play an increasingly important role.

Nearly four million children and young people in our country are already benefitting from attending a school that has already achieved National Healthy School Status, meeting a minimum of 41 criteria across a range of health and wellbeing issues. We recognise however, that across the country, schools and localities face different health challenges and issues from one another, so from September 2009 we are introducing an enhanced Healthy Schools programme which will enable schools working in tandem with key partners, to better focus on health issues which are priorities for them as well as being able to contribute to the health issues facing the local community. What’s more, we will help schools within that framework focus more on children and young people who are most at risk.

Shared visions and local partnerships have always been at the heart of the Healthy Schools’ success and in the future these partnerships will become more closely intertwined as we build upon existing good practice in schools  to achieve real lasting impact in major health challenges.  As my colleague Hugh Annett, Joint Director of Public Health for Bristol City Council and NHS Bristol commented to me; “For me, one of the real strengths of Healthy Schools is that it has encouraged a greater pooling of resources and expertise locally between educational and healthcare professionals, which I see as absolutely vital if we are to effectively support every child in reaching their full potential.”

These partnerships are also vital between schools to get the mix of services and resources right, we are therefore encouraging enhanced Healthy Schools to work more in clusters so local priorities can be met and resources can be shared with similar programmes like extended services.  Healthy Schools now and in the future will not work if this partnership, shared vision and support through the Children’s Trust, PCT and Local Authority is not achieved – because it is this partnership and shared understanding that all institutions and agencies play their part - in the end make the difference.

The publication of the recent Child Health Strategy highlights the Government’s growing commitment to health and wellbeing in the school setting.  If you add the recent ministerial pushes on healthy eating, the publication of the 21st Century School system, statutory PSHE education, (personal, social, health and economic education) and the introduction of the Ofsted pupil wellbeing indicators from autumn, you see a wider policy landscape that helps more than ever before what schools can achieve in tackling health and wellbeing issues.

I see the Healthy Schools programme evolving to become the key channel for supporting and guiding schools in meeting the health and wellbeing vision for the 21st Century School.  We should use the reach, trust and expertise we have gained over the last ten years to help schools make sense of this changing agenda, to help schools meet the new Ofsted framework for wellbeing, and help them put in the systems, processes and interventions to be able to do so.

Over the ten years of Healthy Schools there has been a significant culture change within schools,  part of this is the widespread understanding and recognition that a healthier, happier child will be likely to achieve more in school, less likely to engage in risky behaviour, and will go on to reach their full potential. In fact our own evaluation shows that being a Healthy School has an association with better Ofsted results, better Contextual Value Added results, and lower absenteeism.

I often get asked the question about the mother passing the burgers through school railings in response to Jamie Oliver’s healthy school dinners initiative, and it raises an important point about the role of parents.  Let’s be clear it’s parents who raise children - not the government – but reaching out and working in partnership is the key to success. There are countless success stories where schools, working with parents and local communities, are doing fantastic work helping children make healthier choices whether through sport and activities, healthier eating or supporting their emotional health and wellbeing. The engagement with parents is also crucial, and it is important that parents feel their child is going to a healthy school – and that is why the 21st Century School system outlines a guarantee to pupils and parents that they are supported in this way.

We have also been working on this link with parents through supporting the national obesity campaign - Change4Life - to ensure that these messages get into schools and to parents. The initial response from schools to Change4Life has been very positive and they have been using the toolkits and promotional materials to engage with children and parents.

Of course, good schools have always done more than just educate children on the traditional subjects. These wider personal skills, including having the knowledge and the confidence to make the right health choices in life, are a crucial part of our education system and always have been. A well-rounded education is about being able to move on in life with all the skills and understanding that you need to be able to make informed choices. The Healthy School programme will continue to provide this role in the school and community, making sure that all children have access to services they need, have a curriculum that supports health & wellbeing and the health promotion in the schools that can influence the choices that children make now and in the future.

Part of this challenge will be supporting the schools workforce with the wider health and wellbeing agenda. The Healthy Schools programme will play a crucial role in helping to develop and outline the role of the school health team. The joint DH/DCSF Healthy Child Programme being developed for the autumn will set out these developments needed to ensure universal and targeted services to all children and young people - because the reality is that the people working in schools, be they from education or health, will make the difference and the lasting impact to improved health and wellbeing in schools.

Healthy Schools has come a long, long way since its beginning, but really it’s just the start of a longer journey to ensuring a truly integrated approach to education and health in schools, which brings in the expertise of teachers, health professionals, parents and the wider community, to develop good schools into really great schools. We want to continue to create school environments where every child and young person has access to the health and education support they need to reach their full potential in learning and life, and provide the mechanism to translate the Government’s vision of the 21st Century School System into a reality.

Richard Sangster

For more information about Healthy Schools, please visit: www.