Will cancer education fit into school timetables?

6th April 2018 at 00:00
Thousands of pupils are missing out on ‘life-saving’ lessons, warns charity

The Teenage Cancer Trust has called for cancer-education programmes to reach every pupil in Scotland. Here, we explore why this initiative is considered so important, and how involved Scottish schools are at the moment.

What exactly has the Teenage Cancer Trust called for?

A cancer-education programme in every secondary school in Scotland.

How far is there to go?

Before the TCT made its call, MSPs were told in a parliamentary debate last week that 20 per cent of secondaries were not involved in a free TCT schools programme rolled out in Scotland in 2017.

What are the implications of not being involved?

SNP MSP Rona Mackay, who has highlighted that 40 per cent of adulthood cancers are preventable, said the programme should be in every secondary “because it will save lives” by alerting pupils to signs and symptoms of the disease. The stark message in Parliament was that thousands of pupils were missing out on potentially life-saving cancer education.

Is the government throwing its weight behind the campaign?

It would seem so. In Parliament last week, health secretary Shona Robison said she knew of “schools which have not taken up the offer of the Teenage Cancer Trust’s resource”, and told all MSPs to investigate the situation in their area. She has also charged education officials with raising awareness about the programme. In 2016, the Scottish government published a national cancer strategy, including a commitment to roll out the TCT’s Education and Awareness programme in schools.

How big are the gaps in teenagers’ knowledge about cancer?

Often very big. The TCT finds that it has to bust a slew of myths in schools about supposed causes of cancer, including kissing, sitting on the toilet, masturbating and eating ketchup and jelly babies. Teenagers’ fears about cancer can be profound but badly misinformed – it is not unusual for them to believe that anyone who gets cancer will die from it. Cancer Research UK has found that survival rates actually vary hugely depending on the type of cancer, from 1 per cent to 98 per cent.

Are secondary students blasé about cancer?

Frequently, yes – there is a widespread belief that it is an old person’s disease. In fact, every year, around 200 people in Scotland aged 13-24 are diagnosed with cancer; for that age group throughout the UK, the figure is about 2,600. For several tumour types, cancer survival rates are lower for teenagers and young adults than for children, with research suggesting delays in diagnosis are a factor.

What are the most common cancers among young people?

For young men, germ cell tumours – testicular cancer, for example – and for young women, carcinomas (thyroid, cervix, bowel and ovary, for example). The TCT heard from one teacher who said that a boy attending a TCT presentation then decided to tell his mum about a testicular lump – two years after he had first noticed it.

Is there any empirical evidence to show how effective the TCT programme is?

In 2015, a University of Stirling randomised controlled trial showed that, after a 60-minute TCT education presentation in schools, three times more young people would talk to others about cancer than before. The TCT’s head of policy, Sasha Daly, says the programme “transforms understanding of cancer, leading to better conversations and breaking down fears”. A 2016-17 impact report by Opinion Leaders for the TCT showed that 67 per cent of students said the presentation made them feel more confident about visiting a doctor or nurse to talk about their health.

Can schools fit programmes like this into crowded timetables?

High-ranking local authority education officials, speaking to Tes Scotland, have raised some concerns about this. Curriculum for Excellence stipulates that health and wellbeing is as important as literacy and numeracy, and schools have been told previously that they must do more to combat other health concerns, such as obesity and poor mental health.

Some have questioned whether schools have the capacity to cover everything that is now expected of them. This situation is not unique to Scotland, of course – last year, James Bowen, a union leader in England, said that “continually stacking up additional responsibilities on schools (as worthy as they may individually be) is unhelpful, can cause a range unintended consequences and may even be counter-productive”.

Where would cancer education sit in the school timetable?

Personal and social education (PSE) seems the obvious place, although this part of the curriculum is in flux. In 2017, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, in evidence from pupils, academics and campaigners, heard that PSE was largely “a waste of time”. University of Strathclyde senior education lecturer Joan Mowat said that PSE was regarded as “low-status” by teachers and pupils, and as something “not to be taken seriously”. It was later announced that a review of PSE would be carried out by Education Scotland, which is due to finish by the end of 2018.


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