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How can schools encourage children to lead healthier lifestyles?

Posted on 22 March 2013 by Martin Mitchell, Research Director .
Tags: Healthy Schools Programme, children, diet, health, lifestyles, obesity, well-being

It seems you can’t go a day without hearing about Britain’s growing child obesity problem and its knock-on effects on health. One key response has been to encourage healthy lifestyles early on in schools with initiatives like the minimum nutritional standards. With celebs like Jamie Oliver wading in, what schools do to look out for children’s health has become a key part of the debate.

Here at NatCen, we’ve been investigating a regional ‘offshoot’ of the nationwide Healthy Schools programme, South West Healthy Schools Plus. The programme was tailored to individual schools’ needs, aiming to address health inequality between pupils by improving diet, exercise and emotional health and well-being. The report published this week, so what did we find?

We found that the programme had an impact: the proportion of pupils demonstrating healthy behaviour was two and half times higher following the intervention based recorded data. From speaking to pupils, teachers and school staff, it emerged that the programme created a healthier ‘ethos’ in the school and improved knowledge of healthy food among pupils, and interestingly among teachers too. Another important finding is that schools’ promotion of emotional health and well-being may contribute to a reduction in teenage pregnancies and harm from alcohol and drug use in the future as pupils are better informed about how to avoid peer pressure.

Crucial to schools’ ability to encourage healthier lifestyles were local programme teams based in local councils or health authorities. School staff told us that having the support of these teams really helped raise the profile of the issue, identify school specific problems and introduce high quality activities.

Despite the continued headlines about the fattest generation of Brits ever, these findings suggest that it’s not all doom and gloom. They show that there are meaningful steps we can take to reduce waistlines and improve health consciousness. In response to the prevalent negative press coverage about children’s health, the findings from the healthy schools evaluations bring a positive message that different aspects of children’s health can be improved and that schools can play an important role alongside other professionals and families. The question for schools and policy makers is how success can be sustained when the funding for school and local programme coordinators comes to an end?

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