Lessons from Canada: knowledge exchange in school health research

As followers of the School Health Research Network Twitter account will already know, two of us in the SHRN team – Gillian and Joan –  have recently been lucky enough to visit the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Like DECIPHer, Propel is a university-based research centre working closely with policy, practice and other research partners to evaluate complex health issues. Propel also developed SHAPES, the School Health Action, Planning and Evaluation System, and working with them throughout the development of our School Health Research Network in Wales has been invaluable. This was the first time we were able to see their work first-hand, and what a wonderful opportunity it proved to be!

Our collaborator Steve Manske and the staff at Propel provided us with a packed timetable of thought-provoking interviews and visits. These included conversations with researchers from across Canada, public health staff from provincial and local agencies, and advocates for young people’s health, and a fascinating and lively visit to a local school. We enjoyed meeting like-minded people with a passion for improving young people’s health, and learning about exciting initiatives and innovative approaches being taken in this area. We were also invited to give a presentation at the University of Waterloo about the School Health Research Network

Photo of sign reading 'it is cool to walk to school'

Wise words from one of the schools we visited.

The week provided numerous opportunities for learning from the work Propel are doing, and hearing different perspectives on the highs and lows of working on health in the school setting. For example, we learnt some useful lessons about dealing with the very practical problem of geography. As our network includes schools from all over Wales, we are always keen to learn more about keeping connected over large distances – something in which our Canadian colleagues are extremely well versed. They recognised that face-to-face meetings of group members are necessary, but when this is not practical, technology can play an invaluable role. Webinars are widely used, and certainly seem a sensible way of potentially linking together the members of our own School Health Research Network across Wales. We hope that using webinars in the future will also be able to include people we have met on our trip, allowing us to further extend our learning.

The student health and wellbeing reports that we give to the schools in the School Health Research Network are inspired by those produced by Propel. In Canada, these reports have been supplemented with regional-level reports that pool school-level data, in order to support colleagues within policy and practice. This is something that we will consider as our network develops. We can also learn in Wales from the free online Healthy School Planner developed for the Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (JCSH). This is a free online tool that schools can use to assess their current health environment and build a plan to make improvements.

In Wales our network is linked very closely to the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes (WNHSS).  Healthy schools across Canada are at different stages of development but still provided opportunities for learning. It was interesting to see the approaches taken to active travel at the school we visited (some of which can be seen in the photos in this blog). I also think the following quote from their website would be one worth bearing in mind in the results-based climate of UK education:

Health and education are interdependent: healthy students are better learners, and better-educated individuals are healthier.

This feels particularly relevant considering the publication of new guidance from Public Health England on the links between health and wellbeing and educational attainment.

In our presentation at the University of Waterloo, we outlined the school health context in Wales, including how small we are in relation to Canada – there are more secondary schools in Ontario alone than in the whole of Wales! We then shared our experiences and progress so far in establishing the School Health Research Network, and what we hope to achieve in the longer term. It was a good opportunity to highlight how we have drawn on the work of SHAPES in Canada and successfully adapted it for a different national context.

Photo of markings on the street to encourage children to walk

Markings on the street to encourage active travel.

As well as learning from the work being done in Canada, the trip gave us the opportunity to reflect on our own School Health Research Network and its Welsh context. Presenting on the network and discussing it with others led us to the conclusion that, although there’s always room for progress, there is much to be celebrated! For example, all schools in Wales take part in the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes, which is led by the Welsh Government. We have an inspection process that considers student wellbeing, and legal requirements in relation to nutritional standards in schools. With the addition of the School Health Research Network into this landscape, there is potential to really make a difference to young people’s health in Wales.

A final notable outcome of the visit was producing a joint conference abstract with Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia), Propel, University of Melbourne, and Fuse (Teeside University) on advancing knowledge translation and exchange in school health research. This came about through joining up existing academic collaborations (Propel-Dalhousie, Dalhousie-Fuse, Propel-Cardiff-Melbourne!) and has been submitted to the 2015 ISBNPA conference. If successful we hope to hold a satellite meeting at the conference to build momentum around knowledge translation and exchange, and find funds to enable policy makers and practitioners to attend the conference too.

Now we’re back and have time to stop and think, we’ve had a chance to really reflect and to consider future plans that can take account of our new learning. We are looking forward to further collaboration between DECIPHer and Propel, which will benefit both centres.

We would like to thank Steve Manske and the staff at Propel for looking after us so well and providing us with such a valuable opportunity. We would also like to thank those from other universities, as well as policy and practice partners, for giving up their time to speak with us in Waterloo.

About the author: Joan Roberts is the Manager of the School Health Research Network.

The School Health Research Network is a network of secondary schools in Wales who have joined together with researchers, the Welsh Government and other organisations to support young people’s health.

For more information on the network and our founding member schools, and to register interest in joining the network, see the new SHRN website: www.shrn.org.uk.

All photos provided by the author.

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