Health and education: what matters?

ALPHA, our young people’s research advisory group, help ensure our research at DECIPHer is relevant, acceptable and understandable to young people. But we’re always looking for new ways to involve more young people and other members of the public in our research.

Recently, as part of the University of Bristol’s Thinking Futures festival (and in collaboration with the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science), two ALPHA members helped us run consultation workshops with two groups of young people aged 13 to 16. We wanted to:

  1. Share findings from recent DECIPHer research on school health promotion;
  2. Find out which health topics young people thought were important to research; and
  3. Explore young people’s views on how health and education are linked.

 What are we researching?

Looking at the topics covered by studies in DECIPHer’s recent Cochrane review of the World Health Organization’s Health Promoting Schools framework (blogged here) gives an interesting insight into the research priorities of different health issues:

HPS review pie chart

The proportion of papers in the HPS review on each health topic.

To find out what young people thought about this, we asked them to rank these health topics according to how important they were to them. Two examples of how the young people ordered the topics are shown below:

In contrast to the emphasis on physical activity and nutrition in the HPS review (half of the 67 included studies), these young people almost invariably ranked these topics as least important. They told us that these issues were already covered in school and they heard the same old messages all the time.

Mental health, which was targeted by only two studies in the HPS review, was placed at the top by most groups. For some, this was because mental health could affect, and also be affected by, other health issues such as drugs, alcohol, bullying, violence, or worries about physical health.

The second-to-top spot in the hierarchy was populated variously by: sexual health; violence; tobacco, alcohol and drugs (usually put together); or bullying. For some groups, the discussion focused on weighing up how common the issue was versus how serious its consequences. Others identified a division between health behaviours such as physical activity that could be ‘sorted out yourself’, and issues such as violence or drugs, where ‘help’ might be needed due to addiction or the involvement of others.

Linking health and education

In another recent piece of qualitative research by DECIPHer, secondary school teachers emphasised the ways in which poor health affected their students’ behaviour, concentration and ability to learn. We wanted to know what these young people thought about this. We read them out brief statements from the teachers’ interviews and asked them to place themselves on a line, according to whether they agreed or disagreed.

Students overwhelmingly agreed with the teachers’ statements that both mental health and a lack of sleep could have a big impact learning. Some commented that mental health problems make it hard to concentrate or cope at school. And all agreed that not getting enough sleep could affect learning, with stress, gaming and social media cited as factors that stopped them sleeping enough. There was less consensus (but a lot of debate!) over whether eating breakfast or drinking ‘energy drinks’ had a positive or negative effect on their learning in school.

sleep graph

Everyone agreed that sleep could affect learning…

Energy drinks graph

…but views on energy drinks were more mixed.

Mind the gap?

Consulting these young people highlighted a striking gap between their priorities and what we in public health spend our time researching.

For these young people, mental health was a top priority. Yet only two of the 67 studies in our HPS review focused on this.

Young people and teachers alike are aware of the links between health and education, yet very few studies in the HPS review measured the impact of interventions on students’ attendance or academic achievement.

The young people claimed physical activity and nutrition messages had been ‘done to death’. Half of our review studies focused on these topics, somewhat proving their point.

And some issues highlighted by students and teachers – lack of sleep, energy drinks – didn’t even feature in the HPS review.

It’s time to start listening. It’s time for us to really become mindful of this gap and refocus on what young people are telling us is important.

Thinking Futures event - YP talking

At DECIPHer, mental health and well-being is already one of our key priority research areas, particularly because we recognise the profound influence mental well-being can have on all other aspects of health and risky behaviours. We’re developing new collaborations across Wales and the UK to strengthen our research in this area.

That said, we are not about to stop researching physical activity and diet. After all, these public health issues aren’t going away. We need to work on finding innovative approaches to these issues, rather than just delivering the same old messages in the same uninspiring way. The young people’s framing of many health issues as something to ‘sort out yourself’ also reflects the narrative of individual choice and ‘lifestyle factors’. Maybe an approach that works with young people to help them understand and challenge the wider factors influencing their health – something along the lines of Cancer Research UK’s new campaign, where young people address the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing – is one way forward?


What do you think – are there areas of young people’s health where we should be doing more research? How could we address physical activity and nutrition better in schools? Leave us a comment or get in touch by clicking on the names below.

Thanks to the students and staff at John Cabot Academy for two enlightening workshops, ALPHA for letting us pilot the activities with the group, and ALPHA members Eleri and Rose for helping us run the workshops on the day. For more information on ALPHA, see the DECIPHer website or the ALPHA video. If you’re aged 14-21, live in Bristol or South Wales and would like to join ALPHA, get in touch with Hayley.

About the authors: Beki Langford, Hayley Reed and Catt Turney all work at DECIPHer. Beki is a Research Associate, Hayley is Involving Young People Research Officer, and Catt is Research and Knowledge Exchange Assistant.

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