In secondary school, there was a nun called Sister Infirmarian, who jangled her rosary beads as she marched towards her dispensary with calls of "Go away, go away". The number of prospective patients queuing at her door diminished as she approached, with only the genuinely sick and the incurably lazy prepared to confront her verbal tirade.
The day-to-day care of the sick and wounded in schools now generally falls to auxiliaries, who may or may not have somequalification in first aid. Pupils erroneously refer to the auxiliary as the nurse. This is probably because she is the person who nurses them until they are able to return to class or can be transported home to the care of their parents. Many of those who present themselves at the door of the welfare assistant are more in need of a kind word and reassurance than of any medication.
At a recent conference on raising levels of achievement, Dr Helen Zealley, Lothian's director of public health, made the point that proper nutrition and health care are more likely to enhance the quality of young people's education than all the targets and curricular wheezes that we can muster. She stressed the link between poverty and poor health, using the maxim "Being poor is bad for your health". Health choices are far more critical than subject choices, yet they are relegated in importance because of our obsession with courses and their content.
The school doctor in Holy Rood is Ruth Henderson. On one day a fortnight, she is able to monitor the medical progress of pupils who have serious conditions that affect their lives and learning. She speaks highly of co-operation from school staff, but is on occasion frustrated by the lack of priority given to health checks by the pupils themselves. Their failure to appear at the assigned time is a poor reflection on the status they give health issues and is a serious concern for the school. The services of a doctor on site would be a luxury only to be dreamed of in less developed countries, and should be valued and used to the full.
The list of health problems suffered by pupils grows with every year's intake, as Edinburgh Council's integration policies rightly enable young people with cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and epilepsy to attend Holy Rood. Both special needs staff and subject teachers deal with them sensibly and sensitively, offering these children access to the whole spectrum of school life.
Routine health checks on growth and eye-sight are carried out and the school nurse can provide health information to pupils. This is done most effectively in the classroom situation, and some of the school nurses who have served in Holy Rood have been willing to take advantage of the classroom as a forum for health education.
Too many of our young people who have good health fail to protect it by taking up smoking, a poor diet and lack of fitness. As we hurtle from year to year amid a maelstrom of government initiatives, it may be useful to reflect how improved health could enhance performance. We should remind our pupils that, if they look after their bodies, they could last them a lifetime.
Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh