In 2022, Wales welcomes a new school curriculum prioritising young people’s health and wellbeing. Dr Sara Long’s Welsh Government fellowship is informing and evaluating this major reform. Earlier this year, she presented her initial findings to the School Health Research Network (SHRN). In this blog, she outlines these findings.
Schools can have good or bad influences on young people’s health and wellbeing. They are important settings for early intervention to prevent later physical and mental health problems, and effective prevention may reduce costs to health services later in life. Wales’ education system is currently undergoing major reform, and Wales is preparing for the roll-out of national reforms in September 2022. During March and April this year, I presented the findings of study one of three of my three-year research fellowship to the Wales-wide secondary School Health Research Network. The fellowship is using a range of research techniques to explore the complex preparations for the reforms throughout the educational system, and the impacts of the new school system on health and wellbeing.
I carried out interviews with senior stakeholders in the Welsh education system, and data were analysed to identify key themes. In particular, I was interested in the aims of the reforms, with a particular focus on, but not limited to, the health and wellbeing aims, and issues around successful implementation. Three key areas were identified: ‘A changing society and increasing expectations’; ‘The future role of schools and reform aims’ and ‘The complex space between vision and success’. I presented the findings from the latter two areas, which were particularly relevant for school practice and implementation of the reforms.
Challenges and barriers
These are the findings I presented on:
- A major aim of the reform is to increase practitioner autonomy and freedom in the classroom.
- There will be a new direction for health and wellbeing, which goes way beyond the current statutory PSE, and beyond simply focussing on physical activity.
- Schools have a role to play in equality and helping ALL learners to achieve positive health and education outcomes regardless of background, race, gender or ability.
An issue to consider among schools is that health and wellbeing does not have the same history of being taught as other subjects, and because of this, in reality it is probably the most challenging AoLE to get right. Professional learning, and allocating sufficient time and space for health and wellbeing in the curriculum and wider school environment, can help overcome barriers.
Furthermore, whilst working with external partners can complement a schools health and wellbeing agenda, outsourcing can be problematic. Schools should avoid buying services from companies without an established evidence base and track record. Organisations such as Public Health Wales and the Welsh Network of Healthy Schools can provide advice and information. Partnership working should complement, not replace school level health and wellbeing activities.
A tailored approach
In terms of what this meant for practice, The Health and Wellbeing Area of Learning and Experience (as well as the other AOLEs) is designed to be cross-cutting. This means that learning around health and wellbeing can be weaved into other subject areas (for example, use of statistics in a numeracy lessons, or handwashing and hygiene in science). Increased freedom and autonomy may be daunting, but can be really beneficial. It means that schools can tailor learning around health and wellbeing to their particular context and to individual learner needs. Combined with the use of data and evidence and adoption of a whole school approach, schools can begin to have a really positive impact on health and wellbeing. There is a risk that with increased school level autonomy, the inequalities gap may increase. Although the reduction of inequalities in health and education is something that cannot, and should not be placed solely at the door of schools, by beginning to consider its wider role and taking ownership, a school can begin to have a positive impact.
Familiarisation and adoption of Welsh Governments strategy on ‘A Whole School Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing’ will help schools on their mental health and wellbeing journey. Professional learning will be made available and schools should take advantage of the offer. Focussing on the Whole School Approach, and training around the use of data and evidence in health and wellbeing can increase practitioners’ knowledge and skills. Working with partners from health can also facilitate this. Schools might begin considering the long-term use of school-level health data to evaluate impacts of their health initiatives. Some of the methods of achieving a cultural shift are already described. In addition, leadership can focus on providing sufficient time and space for practitioners to understand the new curriculum, and time and space for trial and error in the classroom.