Pilot schemes on health in schools have raised results and attendance. Now the drive is going national, writes Simon Midgley
YOU might raise a sceptical eyebrow if someone told you children free of illness and personal problems get better exam results.You might argue that there are other areas in school that need attention before pupils' health: better buildings, up-to-date equipment, a full teaching complement. Or you might also argue that the job of schools is to teach rather than worry about health issues.
But the success of healthy schools pilot programmes has persuaded the Government that the issue is just too significant to ignore. The pilots indicate that healthy children do indeed get better results - a fact that has helped spur the launch this week of a pound;4 million new Government health drive in schools.
Ministers intend that schools and education authorities should work with health authorities to ensure pupils' physical, mental and emotional well-being.
"The Government is keen to make the relationship between health and education much more explicit," said Marilyn Toft, a former humanities and health education teacher responsible for the healthy schools initiative.
"If you support people's health needs, then they are much more likely to become effective learners and achieve more in school."
Over the next three years, every education authority is expected to establish partnerships with their health authority to develop health education programmes. By March 2002, the Government expects all schools to be participating.
Ms Toft said a healthy school programme would work not only through the curriculum, but also through action on bullying, drug-taking and safety during playtimes, lunch hours and after school. These combined would be likely to raise standards of pupil achievement, she said.
"If you address a young person's personal, social and health needs and that young person feels safe and secure, then he or she is much more likely to learn effectively," said Ms Toft.
Until now, there has been no consistency in what schools offer when it comes health education, personal safety, drug and sex education, diet and exercise.
Under the scheme schools will be expected to improve the quality of personal, social and health teaching by emulating best practice and adopting concerted, whole-school approaches. They will have to audit their strengths and weaknesses and agree targets for improvement with the local healthy schools partnerships. They will also have to appoint co-ordinators to oversee improvements to pupils' health.
The programme has been tested in eight areas of the country, with surprisingly good results.
Take Newall Green high school, a mixed-sex 11-16 comprehensive in a deprived area of south Manchester. It has significantly improved its examination results since it adopted whole-school approaches to improving pupil health four years ago.
The school embedded the teaching of personal, social and health education across the curriculum; it introduced healthier school food and created a more welcoming atmosphere in the canteen; it started a breakfast club and launched an anti-bullying policy. The result is an improvement in attendance of 20 per cent and, at GCSE, the numbers achieving at least one grade A*-G has risen from 88 per cent in 1996 to 100 per cent in 1998.
Barry Morrison, the headteacher, said that there is a direct link between good health and school attendance. Children in poor health miss lessons and their studies suffer as a result. If you can improve pupil health, he added, you will reduce absence from school.
"This initiative," he said, "is about encouraging children to make their own decisions about whether to have a balanced diet after examining the evidence. To let them know that they really do have a choice. And this process extends to other decisions such as whether to smoke or take drugs.
"This also transfers through to academic achievement. The choice is yours. You can take the decision to do the homework, do an extra assignment or go to homework club. It is really about self-esteem. If you like yourself enough, you will take the right decisions."
The government initiative will be backed up by a system of national accreditation to ensure that each programme reaches a minimum national standard. Schools that pass will be able to display the national Healthy School Standard logo on their stationery.
Programmes will be reassessed every three years. A pool of national assessors is to be recruited, starting in spring 2000.