I recently attended a presentation on health and well-being where an SQA representative explained the new Well-Being Awards. One might question the intellectual rationale behind such an award and whether it will be valued by either employers or tertiary-level educators as an entry qualification. Nonetheless, "an award" may be precisely what schools, and perhaps learners, need to take health and well-being seriously. I regret that but I can live with it.
The second part of the presentation, by an inspector with a health and well-being remit, opened admirably: "I'm happy for schools to justify their own practice when I inspect them. I don't have a checklist. I want schools to have a sound rationale for how they approach health and well-being. Is it high on the school's agenda? How do people relate and speak to each other? If it's happening, you can feel it. It's something beyond audits."
If "something beyond audits" is the new inspection model, shared by all inspectors, it will mark a major step-forward. (I would add that some of my colleagues' recent experiences of inspections do not exactly conform to this.)
The definition of what makes a difference in health and well-being also transcended the cliches that mark too much of the quality-assurance process in education. "What makes the difference? Adults who know children and young people well and understand their responsibilities to them; regular one-to-one conversations between all learners and an adult who knows them well; adults who work with other adults to meet the needs of individual children; adults who are positive role models; positive engagement of parents and carers."
I'd settle happily for schools to be judged against such criteria. Yet we have far to go. Our country is blighted by increasing childhood obesity and adolescent (even pre-adolescent) mental illness is increasing, internet "friendships" are obviating the need for effort in making real friendships and cyberbullying has driven young people to suicide. Our young people, better fed and free of the great killer diseases of yesterday, face new health issues, from diabetes to STDs to childhood depression, especially those from the poorest backgrounds.
Our schools have a major role to play in creating a healthy society but they cannot be blamed if the massive social and economic pressures to ill health are not stemmed by their efforts. Ours is a society in which the relentless pursuit of wealth or status is counted as a virtue, and where competition is lauded over cooperation.
Health and well-being do not sit easily with consumerism, the prioritisation of material success over collective care or the continual denigration of the poor.
Alex Wood works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.