Healthy Schools celebrates 10 years

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Christine McInnes, Colin Noble & Marilyn ToftAs one of the most successful non-statutory government initiatives in schools today, Healthy Schools has many reasons for celebrating on its 10th anniversary. Originally launched in May 1998, over the last decade Healthy Schools has helped to bring about a major culture shift within schools, including the widespread recognition that a healthier, happier child will be likely to achieve more in school and in life.

To fully appreciate how far schools have come over the last decade, it’s important to reflect upon where the journey began. Marilyn Toft, the first National Programme Coordinator for Healthy Schools, recalls of the day she was appointed as the first ever member of staff for Healthy Schools; “It was really scary on that first day, because there was this massive task ahead – but it was also really exciting at the same time. One thing I knew from the very outset was that I could not co-ordinate the programme from an office, so in the summer of 1998 I went out visiting a lot of local authorities and schools to get a better picture of what was needed.”

“What I quickly found from these early consultations was that although a lot of good practice was already in place, what was actually being taught from authority to authority and school to school was very variable, so the need for a national framework of standards was identified very early on.”
One of the first big challenges the early Healthy Schools team faced was proving to schools that this was more than just a consultation process, but an actual framework for transforming how schools address and support children and young people’s health and well-being.

Marilyn explains, “Another major hurdle was breaking down an early stereotype that quickly emerged about Healthy Schools, which was that it was just about chips and skipping.  Of course, part of Health Schools was, and still is, about the healthy eating agenda and improving opportunities for physical activity in schools - but what was harder to convey in those early days was how we were looking at addressing the emotional, as well as the physical, aspects of health.”

Marilyn Toft continues, “At the start, there were two conflicting agendas which we wanted to bring together in schools - the health promoting agenda, and the raising standards agenda. A lot of our early work at Healthy Schools therefore focused around trying to show schools that if you place a greater value on the health and well-being of staff and young people, then you will have a more effective school and this will naturally contribute to the raising of standards.”

Colin Noble, an early Local Programme Co-ordinator at the time that Healthy Schools was just being launched recalls, “Where I worked in Kirklees, we had already had a Healthy Schools award system in place since 1990, and I can recall thinking ‘what a cheek these people from Healthy Schools have’ coming along and telling us we should implement this programme when we were already doing it!”
But soon afterwards, Colin joined the Healthy Schools team as a National Advisor; “I was very quickly convinced that Healthy Schools was an excellent concept that could help to broaden out this joint health and education agenda by setting a national standard, as well as enabling local authorities and schools to share their learning and good practice. I knew it was something that it was important for us to be involved with.”

Once the initial summer consultation process had been completed, in December 1998 ten local authorities were given £150,000 each to pilot Healthy Schools in their locality, which were closely monitored and evaluated.

Marilyn Toft continues, “To get the programme properly up and running, we had to win hearts and minds. We had to gain the trust and confidence of local coordinators and colleagues in government departments, and we only had a short time to do it.

“Our challenge was to demonstrate that Healthy Schools was about making tangible changes in schools, and I think we gained a lot of respect when we hit our pilot launch dates. At that point, I think a lot of people began to see that were not just talking a good talk but were also taking really positive action - and Healthy Schools quickly started to take further shape.”

Christine McInnis, who worked as one of the first Policy Development Officers and a National Advisor for Healthy Schools, recalls visiting the first Healthy Schools programmes with independent assessors to see how it was being implemented by individual schools: “It was amazing to see the energy, enthusiasm and passion from those first Local Programme Coordinators who were putting a huge amount of effort into their work with schools - and to see that work firsthand made me feel very privileged to be involved. What was most touching was that these Local Programmes and schools were implementing Healthy Schools on an entirely voluntary basis and were involved simply because they really believed in it - and to this day, that continues to be the case.”

She adds, “I think the widespread enthusiasm and support we gained was because authorities quickly realised that this was a programme which could be flexibly tailored to the needs of a locality, but was also supported by national guidelines. I think schools saw Healthy Schools as having less prescription than the school curriculum and that it gave them permission to do things they valued and that they believed could make a difference.”

In March 2002, the local regions which were involved in piloting Healthy Schools were accredited with achieving a national standard, which was seen as a tremendous achievement for the programme. A celebration event was held at the House of Lords, hosted by Baroness Massey, where the achievements of each of these local health and education partnership were recognised.

Colin Noble adds, “I think some of these early successes and the popularity of this programme amongst schools surprised everyone. A large part of this probably came down to the fact that we took such a strong partnership-led approach.  As well as at a local level with local authorities and their schools, they were also growing at a government level between the health and education department - and this has laid the foundations for a lot of what Healthy Schools throughout the country are achieving today.”

 Today, the National Healthy Schools Programme is working in 99% schools in England. Nearly four million children and young people in 75% of schools 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.

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 schools continue to build upon this good practice by adopting the new Healthy Schools enhancement model.  
Marilyn Toft adds, “Although we had many challenges to overcome around building the programme’s credibility and bringing together health and education partnerships in those early days, to see the development and growth of the Healthy Schools agenda over the last 10 years is incredible. A decade on I’m totally convinced that we got the shape of the framework right, and the legacy is that today health and well-being is seen as part of the core business of schools.”