Jonathan Croall describes a network promoting health policy planning within schools. The cream-coloured shell is passed round the circle again. This time each child has to think of someone they have helped during the week. It reaches one tough-looking little boy, who hesitates, then says: "I helped my cat when she died."
Circle Time is a popular weekly event for these Year 5 and 6 children at Flora McDonald Junior School in Littlehampton. Their teacher, Karen Hawkins, believes they gain a lot from the sessions: "It enables them to talk more confidently about their feelings, and realise other people often have the same worries, " she says. "It also encourages them to listen carefully to each other."
Promoting the children's confidence and self-esteem is seen as vital in this part of West Sussex, identified as one of the three most deprived areas in the county. Unemployment is high on the estate that surrounds the school, single-parent families are common, and around a quarter of the 365 pupils have free school meals. "We don't want to be social workers, but often we're the first port of call when problems arise," says headteacher Sue Taylor.
Yet within the school the atmosphere seems easy, the children relaxed and on friendly terms with their teachers, a fact that was picked out by a recent visitor from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). The visit was part of a selection process which led to Flora McDonald being chosen as one of the 16 pilot schools in England for a large scale, Europe-wide health education project.
The European Network of Health-Promoting Schools is a joint initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Council of Europe, and the Commission of the European Communities. More than 30 countries are involved in the project, which helps schools work out how they can help to improve the all-round physical, emotional and psychological health not just of pupils, but of teachers, parents and others in the community.
A further 14 pilot schools will soon be identified in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, where the project is being administered by the Health Education Authority (HEA), the schools were chosen on the basis of location, size, social mix of pupils, and the differing degrees to which health education policies have been put into practice.
The schools will not all work in exactly the same way. "This is a developmental project, and a major feature will be the encouragement of innovation and creative practices," says David Rivett, until recently the project's UK co-ordinator.
The schools will, however, be expected to work towards meeting 12 criteria already developed by WHO Europe. These include pupils' self-esteem, teacher-pupil relations, a safe and secure school environment, the health and well-being of staff and pupils, co-operation with outside welfare agencies, and links with the community.
Underpinning many of these is the question of the ethos of the school. For Sue Taylor this centres on how adults treat children: "We try to build up their self-esteem in all kinds of ways - by teaching them to be self-reliant and consistent, by the way we treat them in the classroom, by encouraging and praising them in assemblies," she says.
The WHO criteria also recognise the need in school for policies on nutrition, an item which features prominently in the plans at Flora McDonald. The "grand idea" is to provide a community building in the school grounds, which can be used for food technology during school hours, but afterwards as a cookery club and a place where children and parents can eat meals cooked by the pupils and where buffet lunches could be provided for local people.
Bullying is another issue seen as important. In the hall at Morton School in Carlisle, one of the five secondary pilot schools, headteacher Trevor Easton is going through the results of a questionnaire on bullying with the Year 8 pupils who recently completed it.
"We're looking at the how, when and why of bullying, so that we can do something to change it," he says. There's nothing unusual about the level of bullying uncovered by the questionnaire; but the fact that much of it takes place in the classroom he describes as "quite a revelation".
"Our aim is to engage children and parents in an institution based on giving and receiving respect," the head says. "You find that in the way people talk to each other rather than in written documents."
A pump-priming grant of Pounds 3,000 has bought time for assistant head Judith Norris to develop the school's health promoting plans, which will include involving Morton's feeder primaries. It will also give the school access to substantial support from the HEA, in the form of training, resources and information-sharing across the network.
The project is being evaluated by a team from the NFER, who will make regular visits to the pilot schools, and ensure examples of innovation and good practice are published and disseminated. "A lot of health education up to now has not been co-ordinated," says Bob Stradling, one of the NFER team. "We hope the project will encourage a more coherent approach."
More than 600 schools in England originally applied to join. Dissemination of information about effective approaches is therefore being given a high priority by both the HEA and the NFER.
The European dimension is also seen as important: UK schools will be able to share ideas, and maybe even organise exchanges, with schools in countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia. "It's a unique opportunity," says David Rivett. "Ideas will flow from school to school."
o Further information from the European Network of Health-Promoting Schools project office on 071 413 1812