Highland bites the health bullet

HIGHLAND councillors were this week set to take a major initiative on health promotion in schools which will be among the most ambitious in the country.

This will include a ban on unhealthy items in tuck shops, "smoke-free zones", better school canteens, the reintroduction of free milk in primaries and fruit, vegetables and milk at break times.

The moves, which went before the council's education, culture and sport committee yesterday (Thursday), coincide with a pound;1.5 million plan by Glasgow to provide filtered drinking water for all pupils.

The increasing emphasis on health will be highlighted once again when the final report of the Scottish Executive's school meals task force is published next month. This is prompted by growing alarm about lack of fitness and unbalanced diets, as well as an awareness that healthy living can feed into educational achievement.

Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, culture and sport, acknowledges the financial implications - including a loss of pound;200,000 in annual income until an increased uptake in healthy meals compensates for the removal of fizzy drinks, sweets and crisps.

"Healthier choices cost," Mr Robertson states in a report.

He acknowledges the need for a "generational change of lifestyle" and says schools will have to do more to influence pupils' thinking for the better.

The council has agreed to set "challenging targets", although no time-scale is put on their achievement. These include:

* A 5 per cent increase in the number of five-year-olds free of tooth decay.

* A reduction in alcohol misuse among 12-15s, to 18 per cent of the age-group.

* Cutting smoking among 12-15s to 12 per cent.

* All 5-17s to have at least six hours a week of sports, arts and cultural activities.

Mr Robertson points out that Highland has more children admitted to hospital as a result of traffic accidents, more with tooth decay and higher pregnancy rates among 16-19s than Scotland as a whole.

A major emphasis will be placed on self-esteem as well as nutrition and exercise. The director's report says more attention will have to be paid to those with particular problems such as depression which affects as many as 8 per cent of Highland adolescents, of whom 2-4 per cent will attempt suicide.

All Highland schools will be expected to be classed as health-promoting by 2005, two years ahead of the Executive's target.

Mr Robertson says there should be no doubts about the scale of the undertaking - "a piecemeal approach will be inadequate".

Schools in the vanguard, ScotlandPlus, pages 2-3

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