Time to set a place for good health

Harvey Stalker is spearheading a range of strategies that he hopes will put all schools in the pink. He talks to Elizabeth Buie

Harvey Stalker believes that in 10 to 15 years it may be as socially unacceptable to sprinkle a lot of salt on your chips as it is now to drink and drive. As director of the Scottish Health Promoting Schools Unit, his role is to draw together all the strands of how schools can achieve the ambitious aim of producing young people who are mentally and physically fit and who eat healthily.

If successful, the unit will help to lay down an important legacy for Scotland's future in economic, cultural and social terms.

But is it not an uphill struggle to combat Scotland's tradition of high fat and sugary food, a couch-potato lifestyle and low levels of self-esteem and mental well-being? And how much can a school achieve if a child's family is not prepared to alter its eating habits or general lifestyle?

Mr Stalker, a retired chief inspector of schools, is not daunted by these challenges.

"It may be a losing battle on healthy eating in some cases, but we have got to keep the faith," he says. "We have got to fight the fight. It is not acceptable for anyone to throw in the towel. We have got to be part of the movement for change.

"Since doing this job I have had one or two opportunities to be involved in parents' forums. It is interesting to hear parents talking about health promotion, and in some ways the river is flowing upstream. The traditional view would be that parents know best, but actually children are going home now and saying to parents, 'That isn't healthy food.' It's interesting to hear parents saying that they are beginning to be influenced by that."

If any age-group is considered harder to reach with healthy-living messages, it is surely teenagers, for whom peer pressure has a disproportionate influence. But Mr Stalker believes the messages are getting through to this group. Boys in particular, he says, are getting the anti-smoking message.

"Ten to 15 years ago, people would have said that boys could never have been influenced not to smoke, but it is happening," he adds. "We have to remember that schools are not on their own but are playing their part alongside other agencies. Healthy eating is the same thing in society at large.

"There was a time when somehow it was felt to be socially acceptable, even macho, to drink and drive, but not now. Changes take place slowly as a result of influences from different quarters, but they do take place."

He sees no reason why the same process of public information cannot work for healthy living - be it eating, activity or wellbeing - as has happened in other areas.

"One would hope that when today's children become adults, they will be passing on the same messages to their children," he says.

He believes the key to the success of the Executive's health promotion strategy are Scotland's school leaders. Scottish ministers want every school in Scotland to be a health-promoting school by the end of 2007, but from the headteacher's perspective, that target begs a number of questions:

* What do they mean by a health-promoting school?

* Do we already have a health-promoting school?

* If not, how do we know?

Mr Stalker directs headteachers in the first instance to the Scottish Executive document "Being Well - Doing Well", the national framework for health-promoting schools. The document was drawn up following national consultation and was signed up to by health and education ministers in February 2004.

The next port of call is the recently published HMI guidance in "The Health Promoting School" (part of its "How Good is our School - the Child at the Centre" series). This should help senior managers to know how far along the road they are to meeting the targets.

An important element, though, is the national health-promoting schools network, which has a representative from each of Scotland's 15 health boards and 32 education authorities. The network's role includes the exchange of good practice and offering heads the chance to see what others have done and what might work for them, with the unit taking a more strategic overview.

Mr Stalker says he is conscious that heads and teaching staff often feel snowed under by a blizzard of initiatives coming one after another. But he is confident that the health promoting school initiative is different because it takes three strands - mental health and wellbeing, physical activity and healthy eating - and presents them in a coherent, holistic way. The three national development officers working in the unit specialise in the three areas, but their remit is to join forces and work together seamlessly.

Many schools may already be well on the way to meeting the health promoting targets outlined by government, although they may not have realised it.

"Where there really has been a tremendous move forward in the past 10 to 12 years in Scottish schools is the importance now given to a positive school ethos - that the school is a place where pupils and teachers are respected, where pupils with a problem of any kind can feel confident that he or she will be given a reasonable hearing and that something will be done to help them," says Mr Stalker.

The schools that have that kind of positive ethos will probably already be looking after the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils. Meanwhile, those schools that are already part of the Executive's Hungry for Success initiative are likewise doing their bit for healthy eating.

On the other hand, Mr Stalker recognises that there is still a long way to go, and that part of the problem lies in the fact that many healthy-living goals are long-term and difficult to measure with tick-boxes.

As part of its long-term strategy, one of the unit's new national development officers is in discussion with the public private partnership (PPP) managers' network to make sure that new school projects are designed with activity and sports in mind.

"Physical activity is more than PE," says Mr Stalker. "We are not saying so much, 'Can Scotland get itself a Paula Ratcliffe?' - although that would be nice -but inculcating enough youngsters with an enjoyment of physical activity that when they leave school they want to keep it going.

"The challenge, as far as health is concerned, is to get people on the move," he says.

www.healthpromotingschools.co.uk will include sections for children, families and communities later in January

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