It is now widely recognised that establishing healthy living patterns at a young age is essential for better outcomes in later life and policymakers are trying to instil such patterns through the Health Promoting School and Active School Flag initiatives.
Nearly two decades since the Department of Health realised the need to develop a tailored programme to impart healthy living values on students, 725 primary and secondary schools are now participating in its Health Promoting Schools initiative.
Designed to encourage schools to promote a global view of good health that encompasses diet, exercise and mindfulness, the programme focuses on four key elements – partnerships, with parents and the wider community; curriculum; policy; and school environment, both physical and social.
"Health promotion is not just the responsibility of the health sector. School can make a substantial contribution to a student's health and wellbeing," says Health Promoting School national co-ordinator Helen Deely.
“A Health Promoting School supports a whole school approach to promoting health and wellbeing. It strives to create an environment where positive relationships are fostered among students, staff, parents, guardians and the wider school community,” she says.
Navan, The Irish Times / Pfizer Healthy Town for 2016, has been to the forefront of the scheme with schools at all levels wholeheartedly embracing the challenge of making children more aware of the need to look after their own health as they grow.
St Patrick’s Classical School is, of course, renowned for its exploits on the GAA field and with multiple All-Ireland winning hero Colm O’Rourke as principal, it was always in a prime position to capitalise on initiatives that promote good health.
Along with holding healthy eating days, implementing a mental health care team and championing peer-led substance misuse programmes among students, the school has also installed a new canteen so children can enjoy fresh, nutritional food.
“The whole idea was to take on a new initiative every year, something to build the healthy life of the school,” says health promotion officer Mary O’Brien, who maintains that her job has been made “easy” by O’Rourke’s enthusiastic co-operation.
“We got a new demonstration-style kitchen because we didn’t have home economics in the school.
“We wanted to bring in an initiative to teach them to cook, so several staff members were trained up and we now offer a cook-it programme to our first years.
“Sometimes we think that as children grow up it’s harder to bring them that route, but the reality is when steps have been created in primary schools, it’s very important to nurture those in secondary school as well. They’re life skills, they need them to continue in life,” she says.
It is an apt point given that nearby St Oliver Plunkett National School was among the first nationwide to attain the Health Promoting School Flag in recognition of its participation in the programme.
It has delivered some big achievements as part of being one of the few schools to complete three full cycles of Health Promoting Schools, and was one of the first primary school campuses to ban smoking altogether.
"We do yoga, mindfulness, walking – not every child is hugely into sport," says Oliver Plunkett teacher Ruth Dunne.
“Healthy eating is also well embedded in our school since 1999. We’re so used to it at this stage that we don’t know any different. We’re never allowed to have sweets or crisps or fizzy drinks, but most schools are like that now.”
More concentrated on exercise and mobility, the Active School Flag programme is run through the Department of Education, and has continued to grow apace ever since it was first introduced as a pilot project in 2009.
To achieve the flag, schools must hold an active school week and devote at least one hour a week for PE at primary level, or set aside a double period for the subject at secondary level.
"The fact is that 80 per cent of Irish children do not get enough physical activity every day, and they spend a lot of time each day so while schools can't answer the problem on their own, they have a role to play," says Active School Flag national co-ordinator Karen Cotter.
“We’re trying to encourage schools to maximise their potential to get children more active, and then in the evening times we’re hoping parents will carry on the same message, and that communities will provide plenty of opportunities for young people to be active.”
Fifth and sixth class teacher Laura Kearns from Robinstown National School Navan can appreciate the benefits of involvement in this programme from multiple angles given that her daughter entered junior infants last year.
“The kids absolutely loved the year. The feedback was very positive because the children who were already active got loads of new opportunities. Some children just switch off from outdoors and there was an awful lot of them who provided very positive feedback to what we were doing,” she says.
“I got to see the teacher’s side and the coordinator’s side, and also I got to see her [daughter] coming home and telling me what she was doing with her own teacher. She was definitely an active child anyway but more so now because of that,” says Kearns.
Health Promoting Schools: how they do it
After a school expresses interest in the programme, members of the Health Promoting School team meet the principal and key staff who are willing to drive the process.
Staff at the school receive a presentation on the programme and what is required, and a Health Promoting School team and co-ordinator are appointed.
Priorities are then set and addressed as part of an action plan. Pending a review from Health Promoting School, a flag may then be awarded and planning can start for the second phase of the multi-stage programme.
Active School Flag: Leaflets are sent to primary and post-primary schools every August asking if they want to join the programme, and interested schools can register for inclusion on the Department of Education website.
Upon registration they receive self-evaluation documents for PE classes, general physical activity and partnerships.
When this process is completed, success criteria are set for each of these areas.
When a school feels it has satisfied each of these criteria, it receives a visit from an Active School Flag accreditor which usually takes between 1½ to two hours, after which the flag may be awarded depending on the school’s performance.