Why is a school health research network like a quilt?

I was delighted to participate in the launch of DECIPHer’s School Health Research Network in early June. Let me start this blog by saying I’m impressed with the plans and structures that are in place for Wales’s schools to become healthier communities. I think SHRN has the potential to play a pivotal role – engaging the perspectives of schools, government and research. Making the most of the expertise and experience of the various players will allow each community involved to learn and move forward.

I wanted to share some reflections on the School Health Research Network and some key points to consider in making it a success. I’ll use the analogy of quilting, as illustrated in the picture below. Growing up in Waterloo, Ontario (Canada), I remember lots of winter afternoons arriving home after school to a hubbub of activity in the living room. A quilt had been set up and my Mom’s sisters, cousins and friends had joined in to finish off a unique bedspread. I still have the last one my Mom (along with lots of helpers) quilted. Here are some reflections based on what I observed while playing under the quilt, finishing the treats the women had left.

One or two individuals spent hours cutting and sewing together small pieces of fabric to make a beautiful and functional design intended to keep the eventual user cosy while sleeping. It takes a motivated leader to get the project going; however, it takes a team to finish it.

My mom was great on execution, but didn’t always have the best sense of design.  So, a sister would often work alongside at this stage, adding her artist’s eye ensure a pleasing, as well as functional result. We need to recognise our limitations, and seek the talent that elevates our projects to their true potential.

Quilts were often made, at least in part, from scraps of cloth left over from other projects. Re-purposing these materials in new combinations led to rebirth of the cloth. So, the lesson is that accomplishing our goals may not require new resources – just creative repurposing.


Sometimes, simple structures are critical to the enterprise. The quilt frame consists of long pieces of wood onto which the quilt could be firmly tacked. This allowed quilters access to the outside of the quilt. As quilters finished a strip, they rolled one end of the quilt around the frame to access the centre parts. In schools, policies and physical environments can be essential frames for health improvement programs. We need to have the right structures in place.

Quilting sessions were an opportunity to share and build community. Okay, sometimes it was simply gossip. But many times, the conversations would identify a situation where support was needed. And the community responded. Working together on a task can result in more than the task itself being completed – it builds individuals and relationships.

The most care was taken – and hence the best results produced – when there was a special reason for the quilt, whether a marriage or a donation to a charity. School communities are special resources. It’s vital to identify the passions of the community members on which excellence can be built.

Celebration was a key to continuing the goodwill established while quilting. Quilters were allowed to brag a little when presenting their gift to others. So too, school communities need to take the time to recognize the effort made to advance student wellness, and the great results it can have.

Reflection on how the day(s) went was regular part of improving for the next quilt. Having a mindset that says we don’t have failures, we just have opportunities to learn, can move any challenging task forward.

SHRN, with 70+ talented and supported school communities, can definitely advance student and school wellness in Wales. The respective partners have a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other, and in doing so, contribute to the learning of school communities beyond the network.

Pob lwc!  Bonne chance!

About the author: Steve Manske is Senior Scientist and Research Associate Professor at the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo, Canada. 

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. Find out more at SHRN.org.uk or follow @SHRNWales on Twitter. DECIPHer is a partner in SHRN and is carrying out a scoping and feasibility study – for more information, see the project information page.

Image source: Les Stockton, via Flickr.

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