The path to health

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
An education centre (top) and an 'old girl' (below) have shown how a healthy lifestyle can benefit all and win awards

SMACK IN the middle of the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh lies a swimming pool. This gives the visitor something of a clue as to what is at the heart of the school's ethos health.

Health, however, isn't necessarily what springs to mind when you think of Wester Hailes. The name is more likely to conjure up images of poverty and unemployment. But the WHEC a school, an adult learning centre and a community centre rolled into one is keen to introduce its 408 pupils to a brighter future.

Still, it is a battle. Many pupils begin life at a disadvantage, with half entitled to free school meals. But it's a battle the school feels it is winning, highlighted by the fact it scooped the Scottish Education Award for healthy living this year.

"An important thing for us is trying to raise the aspirations of our young people so that they can begin to see a positive future for themselves," explained Doreen MacKinnon, depute headteacher. "And that's something we consider ourselves to be successful at."

WHEC is a health-promoting school; it has achieved stage one accreditation and is working to-wards stage two.

The facilities are impressive. As well as the pool, there's a dance studio, squash courts and a fully equipped gym, all of which are well used, since pupils take PE up to Standard grade.

The subject is made more palatable for the girls by the effort the school has put into developing dance as an option. "Dance is a good way of engaging girls who often aren't as keen on team sports like basketball and football," said Mairi Allison, the PE teacher.

Every child is encouraged to take up an after-school activity there is a boys only breakdancing club, and basketball and football clubs. And to steer clear of pastimes that stand to jeopardise their health, the school runs smoking cessation courses and peer education programmes about the effects of alcohol abuse.

There is also a "Girls' Club" that meets every Wednesday whose aim is to encourage girls in S5-6 to make healthy choices. Sinead Aitken, 16 and a member of the club, said: "A woman came in to talk about body safety sexually transmitted diseases and that with horrible pictures to show what can happen. I never even knew half the stuff."

As well as focusing on a healthy body, the school is keen to ensure its charges are in good mental health, with anger management classes and counsellors on campus a few days every week to run one-to-one sessions.

Wendy Beales from the Wester Hailes Health Agency counsels about 16 pupils a week at the centre for everything from "low mood" to aggressive behaviour to family breakdown.

Even support staff are trained in cognitive behaviour therapy. And personal and social education teachers remain with pupils from S1-6, so that a strong relationship can develop.

Sinead, in her fifth year, said her PSE teacher had become like her "second mum". Sarah Rosie, also in S5, agreed, but stressed that all the teachers were incredibly supportive. "Here, every teacher sees something different in every student," she explained. "The staff tell you you've got talent. You get a lot of encouragement here."

Sarah's talent is athletics she's one of the top pole vaulters in the country in her age category. She has recently completed the community sports leadership course run at the school, which involves learning how to plan and take a class, and when she leaves school is keen to get into sports coaching.

Sarah wasn't surprised that WHEC won the healthy living award, she said. What shocked her was that they hadn't won it years ago.

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