Head for the hills, not the high street

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Alness pupils and staff have become so involved in getting fit that afternoon jaunts into town to gorge on unhealthy snacks have stopped when chips were left off the menu at Alness Academy in Ross-shire no one seemed to notice. No parents pushed pokes of chips through school railings, no pupils staged sit-ins. School cook Diana MacKay killed off chips by stealth - there were no announcements, no eulogies and no mourning - chips were history.

Soon chocolate and Coke disappeared, and only healthy varieties of crisps were allowed. Ice cream survived the cull, and healthy home baking is on offer, so this is not the home of Killjoy Cafe.

Alness Academy, on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, is the kind of place where you feel healthier just breathing in the air. Highland hospitality thrives and people still bake cakes for guests and offer drams as soon as you cross the doorway.

But despite the warmth of the welcome, this town is no breeding ground for couch potatoes. Alness has just become the first school in Highland to win a silver SHAW award (Scotland's Health at Work) for health promotion. And this year the school plans to add to its bronze and silver awards by going for gold.

The school is on the edge of the town, with Fyrish, a hill popular with walkers looming in the background. The academy was built 30 years ago, and like many Scottish schools built around this time, it's beginning to show its age.

A group of staff sitting together joke about growing old along with the school. "We were a new school 30 years ago and a lot of us came as young teachers and stayed to become old teachers," says John McHarg, the principal teacher of management, responsible for computing, maths and business studies.

"We've got married and had kids and grown old together," clerical assistant, Lesley MacKay says. She celebrates her 50th birthday later this year, and alongside colleagues she's taking part in the huge range of activities offered to staff and pupils at lunchtimes and after school.

Alness staff have a history of fitness, according to auxiliary Jean MacCorqudale. She's at the staff swimming class after school every Friday:

"I've been doing that for 14 years," she says, and she swims every day independently.

"I needed to lose weight and I've lost three stone by going to the gym, cutting down the rubbish I eat and swimming and walking."

Staff can take advantage of regular medical check-ups, sports massage as well as walking, swimming and running groups. Activities on offer include spin cycling, football, basketball, line dancing, and MTV dance, with archery and golf coming soon.

They agree stress is an occupational hazard working in a school and acknowledge not everyone at Alness is leaping into a tracksuit every lunchtime. Mr McHarg says: "It would be fair to say that for the most part, those teachers who exercise seem to cope with stress better. Everybody still has it, but the exercise for many staff is the release valve."

The inspiration behind all this activity is PE teacher Jill Sharp, head of the school's faculty of physical education, health education and ethos. A one-woman cheerleading team, Ms Sharp is the one who urges them on and chases them up when they feel like hiding. The scourge of the school's smokers, she is a powerhouse of fresh ideas to get everyone fit. Along the corridors, her radar homes in on any hapless nicotine addict. "Still smoking? That'll do your chest infection no good," she warns a teenage girl.

The Smoking Club was another of Ms Sharp's success stories. Twenty-nine pupils and four staff joined the smoking cessation group. Seven pupils gave up and four staff also packed in. Typically, Ms Sharp chastises herself for the ones who didn't give up, but among those who did succeed was a teacher who'd smoked 40 a day for 40 years.

Now she is devising ways of getting more youngsters to do the 20 or so activity sessions run for staff and pupils at lunchtimes and after school.

"In Alness, as in all schools, participation levels have dropped. Kids may do activities at lunchtimes, but after school is a nightmare because they want to go off down the high street," she says.

To counter this, she's developing the house system to harness competitive spirit and structure more events into the school day. Another recent venture has been the launch of a staff weight loss group, which it's hoped to extend to pupils.

English teacher Shona Davidson and food technology teacher Susan MacLeod have also played a major role in the Alness path to fitness. And the academy's secret weapon, award-winning head cook Diana MacKay, has been blazing the trail for healthy eating for years. Her growing reputation has resulted in an invitation to 10 Downing Street and invitations to conferences to talk about the Alness success story.

"In 2002, Diana, Susan and I went to a conference called The Chips Are Down, about setting up a SNAG group - school nutrition action group. It was about how you could get rid of chips in your school and about healthy eating," Ms Davidson explains. "The idea was that you would set up a group which would involve students and staff. And when we set up our group, the first thing we did was to give a questionnaire to pupils, asking them what they wanted to change.

"The answer was they wanted more choice. At the same time, Diana's employers were saying 'What would you like to do to improve your canteen?'"

says Mrs Davidson.

The result was a raft of changes which saw the introduction of a Roll Bar where pupils selected their own roll and filling and a Grab and Go section with ready-made sandwiches, juice and fruit. Hot meals included healthier options, resulting in more children eating a main meal and fewer opting out altogether.

Health education features significantly in the life of the school. The canteen was one of the first in Scotland to implement Hungry for Success targets and it has a Scottish Healthy Choices Award.

Some of the pupils admit they've changed their eating habits as a result of the school's regime. Sam Shaw, third year, says: "You get real home-made food with good ingredients. Far fewer people are going down the high street. Three years ago most people did not get the main meal; now loads of people do take the hot food."

April Wright, 14, is a keen athlete who wants to be a policewoman when she leaves school. She has a main meal from the canteen every day now. "When you get hot meals, they ask whether you want veg or salad and you have to take one basically," she says.

Catriona Fraser, a 16-year-old fifth former wants to be a doctor and has a keen interest in nutrition. "The selection of food in the canteen is really good, really healthy. It's changed a lot since I started school." And she says it's not just the food that's healthier: "I remember when I first started school going into the toilets and it was stinking of smoke. It doesn't happen at all now."

With encouragement from Ms Sharp, Catriona has become one of the school's most talented long distance runners and was the first under-20 woman to finish in the Loch Ness 10km run.

"I never realised I was that good until I came to the academy and started gradually running more and more cross country competitions," she says. "I think people need to be encouraged a wee bit more to take part in the PE activities. You always get the same lot coming to the activities."

To gain the Scotland's Health at Work awards, schools have to meet certain criteria, develop policies to promote healthy lifestyles and maintain standards as they pursue bronze, silver and gold levels.

Ms Sharp said staff were given questionnaires about the school facilities and asked whether they felt they were healthy. "We had to have evidence and act on staff responses," she says.

A recent inspection commended the school's progress implementing Scottish Nutrient Stan-dards for school lunches ahead of target.

Headteacher Ken MacIver joined the school two years ago and was delighted so much health promotion work was already in place. "We have won all sorts of different awards in terms of healthy eating. It's been a real team effort over quite a number of years," he says.


Bronze, silver and gold:

Carradale Primary

St Luke's High, East Renfrewshire

St Modan's High, Stirling

Aberdeen College

Clydebank College

Bronze and silver: Burnfoot Community School, Border.

Columba High, North Lanarkshire

Forres Academy, Moray

McLaren High, Stirling

Reid Kerr College, Paisley

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