What one thing could teachers do to make teenage pupils smoke and drink less, avoid fighting and sex, eat more healthily and take exercise? The answer, new analysis suggests, is to encourage them to go to university.
Startling findings from the University of St Andrews suggest that all sorts of knock-on health benefits can be gained from making pupils think about their longer-term academic prospects.
The study shows how young pupils from poorer backgrounds, who might otherwise succumb to unhealthy habits, end up making entirely different choices. They eat more fruit and vegetables, exercise and brush their teeth more, and are more likely to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis, sex, fighting, crisps and soft drinks.
“Even if your current situation isn’t perhaps the rosiest, if you have this long-term plan, something to work towards, it’s going to benefit you in a wide range of ways in terms of your health behaviour,” lead researcher Ross Whitehead told TES.
The findings, drawn from 1,834 fourth-year pupils in 113 Scottish secondary schools, have profound implications for how teachers tackle issues such as drugs and underage sex. They suggest that scare tactics and lessons explicitly about such issues are less effective than raising students’ long-term ambitions.
“Instead of focusing on individual health behaviours, it makes sense to take a step back and focus on [longer-term] life outcomes first,” Dr Whitehead said.
He agrees that the teenage years are critical for improving public health, but believes that hammering home messages about the dangers of, say, alcohol are largely ineffectual.
“I’m fairly frustrated at the current intervention approaches – there’s often one intervention for each individual behaviour, which is not particularly cost-effective,” he said. “I think adults and adolescents alike are kind of habituated to those messages.”
His findings make “complete sense”, according to Elaine Wyllie, a former head who is crusading to make children healthier.
“You can kind of feel that would be right – there’s hope there, there’s aspiration, there’s expectation, there’s a sense of purpose, there’s postponement of gratification. It makes complete sense,” said Ms Wyllie, who retired in October from St Ninian’s Primary, Stirling, and has introduced a programme encouraging teachers to set aside 15 minutes every day for pupils to run or walk a Daily Mile.
She adds: “When children have chaos and hopelessness, it’s so hard for them. What we need is to give them that sense of purpose.”
Cause for optimism
The research, funded by NHS Scotland, has implications for wider policy, concluding that “encouraging adolescents to consider an academic future may achieve public health benefits, despite social factors that might otherwise precipitate poor health”.
It says that “anticipating university attendance may maintain long-term health by instilling optimism and a sense of control over one’s destiny”.
The University of St Andrews academics were able to control for social factors and focus their findings on students from less affluent backgrounds. When these young people expected to go to university, their health behaviour was similar to richer peers.
The study, which is the subject of an article in the International Journal of Public Health, is based on analysis data originally collected by the University of St Andrews for the 2010 Scottish Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children survey.