Schools are not just places for academic learning but environments for developing knowledge and skills that will help children to make informed lifestyle choices. Raymond Ross reports on a new strategy to promote physical and mental wellbeing
Every school in Edinburgh is to become a health promoting school by 2007, with a health education co-ordinator, under a three-year strategy launched by the city's education department last week.
Announcing the strategy at Craigmount High, Ewan Aitken, the city's executive member for children and families, lamented Scotland's position in the international health league table, saying it is "way down about where its football team is and the two things are probably connected".
Mr Aitken cited the Scottish schools adolescent lifestyle and substance use survey, conducted for the Scottish Executive this year, which shows that over 50 per cent of 5-year-olds have at least one dental filling, one in six primary children could be classed as obese, and 14 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys aged 14 admitted to smoking regularly.
Health is already integrated into much of the day-to-day work of the city's education department, with initiatives on school nutrition, promoting physical activity and positive mental health.
The fastest growing sport in Edinburgh schools is girls' football.
Twenty-five school breakfast clubs have been rolled out recently, says Mr Aitken, and smartcard access has increased the numbers taking school dinners.
It is hoped that by 2007 there will be no sugary fizzy drinks on sale in the city's schools. The Improving Health framework says: "The best outcome would be for the school population to decide that vending machines should either be stocked with healthier choices or removed altogether."
While each school will develop its own priorities for action, recommendations include introducing healthy tuck shops and pupil and parent participation in promoting health. These are expected to be addressed in individual schools' development plans.
Craigmount High is already well ahead in meeting the 2007 target. It has 55 extra-curricular activities on offer at lunchtimes, after school and at weekends. These include 22 sporting activities, a young chefs' class, debating, photography and a newspaper club.
Headteacher John Fraser says: "We've formed a committee with teachers, pupils and a member of our catering company - a key member of the committee - to look at health promotion projects across the school. We're looking at ways of encouraging more physical exercise, increasing the amount of water being drunk and the number of pupils drinking it and we've recently set up a breakfast club, open to all our pupils. This serves cereals, toast and fruit juices, no fatty or unhealthy food."
He believes physical and mental health promotion is an issue that requires a whole-school approach and should not be left simply to the physical education and home economics staff.
"Health promotion is critically important, quite simply because our health is the most important thing we have," he says.
"Aspects of health promotion are embedded across the curriculum, including personal and social development. It has to be part of the ethos and culture of the school."
The next stage for the school, he says, is to get parents' practical support. "You can't guarantee that parents will, for example, make sure their children are in bed early enough to ensure they'll be fully rested for school the next day. We need to work with our parents on health promotion."
Edinburgh's education department plans to develop CPD units (including computer materials) for teachers to support the health promoting ethos. It also plans to promote multi-professional training and enhance collaborative planning and practice in relation to health improvement and inequalities.
Each school's health education programme must comprise curricular provision, models of healthy practice, recognition of health promoting behaviour, co-operation between home and school and links with health and caring services (such as doctors, psychologists and community police).
"This is not a box ticking exercise. It is about transformational change.
This is a truly holistic approach. We are all here for the whole child," says Mr Aitken.