There's more to healthy living than taking chips and burgers off the lunchtime menu. Matthew Brown visits a Midlands secondary which is spreading the word across the curriculum - and beyond
Stephen Lanckham knew there was something different about Windsor high school the moment he stepped into the canteen. "When I saw on my first day a dining room full of teachers, it said to me, 'This is an important place'," he says. "As a new teacher here, you feel the emphasis on health."
That was last September when Mr Lanckham was taking up his new post as director of sport at the school, a 1,400-pupil comprehensive in Halesowen, deep in the heart of the Black Country. In the same month, Windsor high became the first school in Dudley LEA to reach level 3 of the national healthy schools standard for its "whole-school approach" to health.
Six months on, the scene is pretty much as Mr Lanckham must have found it.
It's 12 o'clock, and at one end of the dining hall sit headteacher Keith Sorrell and a group of teachers, including Bryn Thomas, an assistant head whom Mr Sorrell converted from a science teacher into the school's first health co-ordinator a year ago.
"We've built up an extensive range of sporting opportunities here," says Mr Sorrell, a former England hockey player who guided Windsor to specialist sports college status three years ago. "Last year, nearly 80 per cent of our pupils took part in inter-house sport. But I felt that wasn't enough, that we needed to take a more overall approach to health because of its effect on education.
"Talking about health in PSHE is fine, but then the kids go and eat chips for lunch. I think many schools are contradicting themselves, whereas we are doing the opposite by saying let's make meal times important."
Windsor high was ripping up school menus long before Jamie's School Dinners was even a doodle on a TV producer's napkin. With the backing of the school council, at the beginning of the current school year Bryn Thomas began a revolution that has transformed not only the eating habits of pupils and staff alike, but altered many of their lifestyles and given the school a new ethos.
Inevitably, the initial focus was on food. The school caterers had always offered a healthy option but, given the choice, kids still went for chips.
"If we were going to be serious, I didn't think we could justify having fast food and vending machines around," says Mr Thomas.
So he removed the fizzy drinks machines (even though they generated much-needed income) and talked Dudley Catering Services into providing six healthy menus a day for the price of a free school meal. These days pupils pay pound;1.45 for hot meals such as "world food" and traditional meat and veg dishes, plus baked potatoes, salads, freshly made sandwiches, and bags of fresh and dried fruit. Side salads are free, the milk bar sells 250 pints of shakes a day, and water bottles are available for 20p.
Now, more than 1,000 pupils eat school dinner every day and the number of teachers dining alongside them has risen dramatically. The atmosphere is calmer and the lack of chip cartons, sweet wrappers and drink cans means there's far less litter than there used to be, while both teachers and pupils believe student behaviour has improved.
"It is really noticeable in the afternoon," says assistant head Karen Farrington, who oversees pastoral care and PSHE. "They are a lot calmer than they used to be. Some of them even use the word 'hyperactive' to describe the way they were before they cut out all the fizzy drinks."
That link between health and learning has risen up the public agenda in recent months. A study by the Thomas Coram Research Unit and the National Institute for Educational Research, published in March last year, concluded that schools which applied the NHSS most rigorously were "adding value"; that healthy schools were improving faster than average and were more inclusive; and that their pupils' enthusiasm and self-esteem were higher.
Then, last September, the Government issued its Healthy Living Blueprint to help schools "support children in leading a healthy lifestyle".
There is even to be a new healthy schools category in this year's National Teaching Awards, and, according to new Ofsted guidelines, from September Her Majesty's Inspectors will be assessing the healthiness - or otherwise - of pupils' lifestyles.
The healthy ethos spreads well beyond the dining hall at Windsor high.
There's a new GCSE health course run by food technology teacher Judith Armishaw, for example, while citizenship co-ordinator Estella Staley works with Mr Thomas on a programme of "collapsed timetable" days during which a whole year group focuses on issues such as diet, drugs, smoking and exercise.
PE staff organise lunchtime "test your fitness" competitions; there are charity "skip-athons"; special assemblies are held on the benefits of aerobic exercise; and Mr Thomas gives out pedometers to encourage children to walk to school as part of the Government's Get Britain Moving initiative. The school has even appointed a full-time nurse who runs smoking cessation and sex education drop-in sessions for key stage 4 pupils, while the health working group ensures the message filters into all areas of the curriculum.
"I expected one of my main priorities to be using sport to promote healthy lifestyles," says Mr Lanckham. "But the school has already got a fantastic vision; there's an ethos of health and a method that sends this vision out through departments to lesson times, not just through PE."
"Everyone in school is talking about health," agrees Mr Thomas. "Raising the profile of these issues in school has created discussion in the home, too. I wrote to all the parents explaining the rationale and we got a lot of good feedback." News about the health initiatives appears in the school newsletter. And there is evidence that it's all having an effect beyond the school gates. "My dad used to hate salad," says Alex Byng from Year 7. "But he keeps eating it now because I've been telling him about all the stuff we learn in school."
The message is spreading in more formal ways too. As a specialist sports college, Windsor is at "the hub of a family of schools", enabling it to spread its approach to health to local primaries and secondaries. "We are the driving force behind a movement in the whole area of south Dudley," says Mr Lanckham. "This school has the potential to make an impact, not just here but even on a national scale."
Mr Thomas is planning initiatives on personal hygiene, involving the science department, and recycling, linking personal to environmental health. "With the changes in the canteen leading the way, everything else gets a high profile," he says. "We've created the base from which the rest can come."
With the healthy school award in the bag, it's no surprise that Windsor has already been nominated for the new teaching award. Not that Mr Thomas will allow anything to deflect him from his purpose. "I'd rather be judged by the impact it has here," he says. "We've got all the problems of other comprehensives with our intake, but I believe, with health, we are 12 months ahead of the game. Maybe we'll inspire other schools."
For information about the national healthy schools standard and the Healthy Living Blueprint go to www.wiredforhealth.gov.uk. Nominations for the Teaching Awards 2005 (www.teachingawards.com) close on March 18