Headteachers call for greater collaboration to improve child health

Improving child health requires more collaboration and co-ordination, adapting policy to suit local needs, according to headteachers interviewed as part of new DECIPHer research.

Schools are often regarded as an ideal setting for health interventions. Pupils spend a considerable amount of time at school during their early years, and it is an opportunity to engage with children across all age groups. This has led to a huge increase in the number of health-based projects being run through schools.  However. the implementation of effective school-based health interventions is often difficult.

As part of DECIPHer‘s ‘Community Led Active Schools Programme (CLASP)’ study, 19 primary school headteachers were interviewed on their views of using the school as a setting for public health interventions. The results of the study, which was conducted by DECIPHer researcher Danielle Christian and colleagues at Swansea University’s Medical School and College of Human and Health Sciences, will be published in an upcoming issue of BMC Public Health.

Interviews conducted as part of the CLASP project showed that most headteachers welcomed health initiatives as a part of school life, and saw both health and education as imperative for a child’s wellbeing.

They also highlighted the increasing reliance on schools to tackle more and more health issues, from healthy eating and teeth cleaning to drug and alcohol misuse and sexual health.

Schools appreciated they were not alone in tackling child health, and there were a number of excellent, externally-led projects and organisations offering help to schools. However, they felt this was often done in a very disconnected and un-coordinated manner, leading schools to become overwhelmed with the sheer number of initiatives.

One headmaster from a local school said:

“We have the Welsh Assembly Government giving us initiatives, we have regional [governments] giving us [initiatives], we have then our Local Authority giving us initiatives. We have then other things like we’re doing rights respect in school, we’re doing restorative practice, we do valleys education, we do Healthy Schools, we do sustainability, we do European schools, we do all these things, so yes, we do feel burdened.”

Whilst the variety and choice of interventions on offer was not an issue, the lack of coordination led to the feeling of being overburdened. There was little connection between projects, meaning they often conflicted and competed with each other.

Additionally, teachers said that the recent government shift in focus towards literacy and numeracy has led to greater pressure on schools to fit everything into the curriculum. With increasing demands, less time is available to tackle health aspects, even though schools recognised that health directly impacted on a child’s ability to learn.

Lead researcher, Danielle Christian from Swansea University’s College of Medicine said:

“Schools and health organisations already do a great deal to increase health and this shouldn’t be underrated. Headteachers are very open to health interventions but when designing new interventions it is important to keep the schools’ agenda in mind and work in greater partnership with Headteachers. By increasing collaboration further we can avoid replication of projects whilst allowing more opportunities for schools to address their unique and diverse health issues.”

WHO Healthy City Co-ordinator, Sharon Miller, said:

“Ensuring effective collaboration between partner organisations and communities to improve health and well being is at the heart of the World Health Organisation Healthy City Programme. Swansea as a WHO designated Healthy City has funded this research to provide information on the best approach. Only by having a joined up approach will we be able to reduce the health inequalities that exist.”