The majority of teachers and support staff do not know enough about eating disorders to discuss the subject with their students, despite widespread fears that children are affected by these disorders, new research reveals.
Most teachers believe that young people can learn more about eating disorders by reading celebrity magazines and tabloid newspapers than they can at school, according to academics from King's College London.
The onset of eating disorders is at its highest rate between the ages of 10 and 19, with a dramatic increase in hospital admissions for eating-disorder patients of that age.
Of 826 members of primary and secondary staff surveyed by the researchers, 84 per cent said that there were or had been students with eating disorders at their schools.
"Eating disorder prevention and early intervention are key to ensuring successful long-term outcomes," the academics said. "School staff are in an excellent position to facilitate this process."
But 40 per cent of those surveyed said that they would not know what to do if they thought a student might be developing an eating disorder. A further 40 per cent said that they would refer their concerns to a colleague. Only 14 per cent felt sufficiently confident to talk to the student themselves.
"This doesn't feel like the sort of thing you should be learning on the job," a learning support assistant told the researchers. "We should get proper training. After all, there's so much potential to say or do something harmful, completely by mistake."
"People can feel quite uncomfortable about accusing someone of something," said Leanne Thorndyke of the eating disorders charity Beat. "But it's not a crime to have an eating disorder. Teachers can play an important part in students' recovery."
Despite this, 74 per cent of staff surveyed said that their school offered no training at all for dealing with eating disorders. And of those whose schools did provide training, more than 50 per cent said that this was available only for two or three members of staff.
Perhaps as a result of this lack of training, 89 per cent of staff said that they would feel uncomfortable teaching about eating disorders, and the majority of those said that they would feel "very uncomfortable" discussing the subject with students.
"What can I teach them that they haven't already learned from Heat magazine or The Sun?" a chemistry teacher said. "They're walking encyclopaedias on this topic."
More than half said that they lacked the knowledge to teach the subject properly. "If anything, they should be teaching us," said a form tutor of 14- to 15-year-olds. "One of my students did a project on anorexia recently. I learned a lot from her."
Others felt in command of the basics but were worried that delivering a lesson on the subject might bring up unexpected difficulties. "I'd be clueless when it came to answering probing questions," a maths teacher said.
And a religious education teacher added: "I'd be worried in case one of my students talked about their eating disorder in class. I wouldn't know how to handle that situation."
The academics' findings, which were published in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health, showed that one in five teachers also worried that teaching about eating disorders could in fact cause the illness to develop in some children.
A teacher of 9- to 10-year-olds said: "My understanding has always been that if you teach a pupil about eating disorders, you give them the tools to develop that disorder themselves."
But Ms Thorndyke disagreed. "Eating disorders are a serious mental illness," she said. "It's not just about the food - it's about the feelings around it. It's a whole range of different factors coming together."