The Academy Award goes to…Justine Greening MP

Do you wish that the focus of accountability measures within schools is broader than just progress and academic achievement?

Well, be careful what you wish for because it might just be about to happen.

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This latest ‘summer blockbuster’ from the Department for Education is called the Healthy Schools Rating Scheme and is their response to the increasing number of warnings about the state of our next generation’s physical health and emotional wellbeing, the latest of which is from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (State of Child Health Report).

Details of the scheme emerged on the gov.uk Contracts Finder site on 20th December 2016 and rather than a sequel to the National Healthy Schools Programme that was launched in 1998, this incarnation is best viewed as Healthy Schools Status ‘reloaded’.

A special DfE unit has been assembled to manage this programme and as they have consulted with key stakeholders (including the Department for Health), mental health, diet and physical activity will be the three central pillars within the Healthy Schools Ratings Scheme, which will be previewed in pilot schools from September 2017 and in schools nationwide from January 2018.

I was invited to contribute to this consultation process and my 10 recommendations were as follows:

1. It should be an optional programme. If more funds were made available to support the scheme, it should be a compulsory one and scrutinised with the same level of rigour as academic standards. The money simply isn’t there. Therefore, there is a danger that an insufficiently-funded attempt that is given teeth will become too narrow in its focus and simply become a box-ticking exercise for schools. The best solution would have been to correctly prioritise school health and wellbeing by linking funds from the Sugar Tax to this programme, rather than redirecting it to capital building projects (see point 7).

2. The wellbeing of teachers (including the headteacher) must be paramount. Focusing solely on pupils will simply add to the stress levels of teachers and be counter-productive.

3. Families must be involved. Any new initiatives as a result of this scheme should have parents and family links, to enable behaviour change to be sustained outside the school gates.

4. Mental health. There needs to be a seismic shift in thinking to accept that everybody has mental health issues at various times and of different degrees, not just those pupils who are on a CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) waiting list. Prevention should be the focus, with children (and staff) being taught how to be responsible for and able to manage their own emotional wellbeing.

5. It must be quality-assured. If the scheme relies on self-evaluation, only its currency will be devalued and it will not take its rightful place as a top priority for all schools. There should be a peer-review system embedded within the scheme which will also provide excellent opportunities for schools to share best practice in this area.

6. Sport is not the solution. Sport in schools has received significant investment over the past 15 years, during which time we have seen children’s health significantly deteriorate. Instead, the focus should be on physical activity and more inclusive, accessible and sustainable activities, such as walking to school and active break times.

7. Maximise the Sugar Tax opportunity. The PE and Sport Premium grant is due to increase from September 2017. This must be linked to the Healthy Schools Rating Scheme, so that funds are invested more effectively and they deliver broader outcomes than what can be achieved through PE and school sport alone. Most schools still believe that the Sport Premium should be spent on sports coaching providers, which is simply incorrect and often a very poor investment. Furthermore, the recent announcement about Healthy Schools Capital Funding is a missed opportunity to allocate much sought-after public funds to initiatives that have an evidence base to support health improvements. Of course, schools need facilities that are fit for purpose, but claiming that capital projects will lead to health improvements so that Sugar Tax funding can be used is more than a little disingenuous.

8. Recognition for current ‘Healthy Schools’. Where schools and local authorities have been able to sustain the former Healthy Schools Status scheme, participating schools need to be recognised for their ongoing commitment. Also, a mapping exercise should take place to ensure that the two schemes complement one another and do not duplicate work for teachers involved.

9. A joined-up approach is needed. Opportunities to link with related agendas should be seized in order to multiply impact and maximise public funding. Potential synergies include the NHS England’s Local Transformation Plans for Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing, and Anna Freud’s THRIVE Framework.

10. Start with the end in mind. We know that consistency and sustainability are the holy grail of educational initiatives, but we need to consider the consequence of a change in policy, approach or even administration. This scheme must be bulletproof and transcend party politics. It should become a social movement that is co-created by its stakeholders and should use social media to proliferate its support, akin to The Being Well Agenda, which already occupies this space.

So will this latest DfE release be a success? That remains to be seen. It may gain critical acclaim in Whitehall through its support for colleagues within Public Health and NHS England. However, will it deliver any tangible outcomes regarding the health and wellbeing of staff and pupils?

The introduction of any scheme such as this is an obvious sign that the current system is not developing children as human beings with personalities, identities and beliefs, hearts, lungs and limbs. Furthermore, teachers are leaving the profession in droves because the stresses placed on them simply no longer make sense.

Other developed countries seem to be dealing with this public health crisis adequately enough (Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance) and yet they still have iPads, Xbox and Instagram. Critics of this scheme will suggest that relaxing current accountability measures and taming the menace of Oftsed will make extrinsic schemes like Healthy Schools Ratings, the PE and Sport Premium, and character education redundant.

As Sir Ken Robinson recently said in his BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) talk: “We are the system.” We have a responsibility to really back this scheme and make it a box-office success for our pupils and for the sake of our profession. We should take a pragmatic view and work with what we are given, affecting change from the inside, where we continue to make a difference in schools on a daily basis.

If we really want to demonstrate that our education system needs to be redesigned, we need to use our vote to show the Government just how much we value the health and wellbeing of children and staff in our schools. In doing so, MPs and civil servants will soon realise that there is another way to raise standards in schools which doesn’t involve anxious and depressed 10-year-old children who live in fear of tests – or teachers who have to commit 50-hour working weeks simply to satisfy their admired, yet flagrantly abused, consciences.

Pictured above is Education Secretary Justine Greening MP