The need for comprehensive health education in schools: From September 2020, the UK school curriculum adapted the way that it teaches sex education. Sex and relationships education (SRE) was replaced by compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE). The adopted changes were developed to meet a growing need for young people to sufficiently understand and develop the skills required to maintain healthy respectful relationships. These changes are a step in the right direction; giving young people the tools they need to build appropriate relationships throughout childhood and beyond.
The health and wellbeing of our children is also covered by the school curriculum, covering subjects such as maintaining their mental wellbeing, eating healthy food and understanding of nutrition; although these issues are not addresses in the same detail SRE or RSE.
As a nurse, I have always believed that health education and related topics should be covered in depth in a dedicated lesson, rather than being scattered across a variety of subjects, in order that we can influence health behaviours from an early age. Research suggests that students who participate in health education as part of their school curriculum have improved health related knowledge and attitudes, health literacy and skills, and that it has a positive impact on healthy promoting behaviours.
If health education begins early and continues throughout a child’s development and growth, national objectives for wellness and well-being can be achieved. The importance of health literacy and health promotion has never been more obvious and compelling than in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic where so many health issues unravelled.
According to the Resuscitation Council, over a third (38%) of UK adults have never undertaken any form of training to learn essential CPR skills, skills that could save a life. St John’s Ambulance revealed that 140’000 people die each year in the UK from incidents where first aid could of possibly saved their lives, with research by the Red Cross showing just 5% of adults have the skills and confidence to provide first aid in emergency situations.
In 2020, the Department for Education confirmed that all state-funded schools in England will now be required to teach CPR and first aid as part of children’s health education. This was, a huge step forward in recognising the importance of health education for younger people, an initiative which the UK government previously blocked in a 2015/2016 private bill, which aimed to make first aid a core part of education in every secondary school in the country.
Health education during childhood will influence life-long health habits. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises the impact which early intervention on health education makes in their publication entitled ‘Making every school a Health Promoting School’.
The WHO reported that:
- Bhutan recorded student physical health improvements over time, attributed to the successful implementation of specific school health policies and programmes implemented uniformly throughout all of the country’s regions;
- In Paraguay, teachers were given non-monetary incentives for their involvement in implementing a health strategy at school. Improvements were found in nutrition, student retention, engagement in learning, reduced school violence, more job opportunities and strengthened community agriculture; and
- In Indonesia, there is a national annual competition for the best health promoting school, which is considered highly prestigious award, showing the value and impact they believe this has to their country.
There is great value to economies, in teaching comprehensive health literacy. Learning to be health literate not only imparts knowledge and understanding which may decrease the incidence of chronic diseases, but it also imparts a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment through health education, encouraging people to take ownership of their own health needs from a very early age.
The current system in the UK needs to be overhauled and consolidated when it comes to health education in our schools. At the moment, it is delivered on an inconsistent basis and is difficult for teachers to manage, as the topics are often scattered across a variety of subjects. I would like to see us adopt a system where children are taught “Health” in a dedicated lesson, such as in Australia.
The topics covered in “Health” (at age appropriate levels), should include health knowledge and understanding, first aid, CPR, common conditions, mental health and relationships, health service utilisation, growth & development, factual information on the human body, family and social health, drugs, alcohol and substance abuse, disease prevention and control, community and environmental health, lifestyle, nutrition and fitness. Classes could further participate in projects relating to global health concerns and community health projects, clinicians could be invited in to speak to students about topics relating to health and wellbeing, and students can clearly learn about available services and be actively empowered to utilise them.
In 2018, The Kings Fund Shared their report ‘Responsibility for health: the cultural change we need’, in which they stated; ‘There is good evidence for people taking greater responsibility to manage their own health where they have the capabilities and motivation to do so. However, this must go hand in hand with equipping people with the knowledge and information that will support them to do this.’ Patient engagement and health literacy has long been a problem in relation to health outcomes, however it feels like there has been a shift in recent health attitudes, with millennials having a growing concern over the burden of health, and utilising health applications and hand held devices to track this. And although the burden of disease is still rapidly growing, the concern for individual health seems to be growing alongside it. Which makes now the time to act. By ensuring a standardised approach to health education, I believe we can positively utilise this change in attitudes and behaviours in relation to health and health outcomes for future generations, creating a nation which is well versed in health literacy.
I am a Registered Nurse, so perhaps my views on the importance of health education are a little biased from my day to day experience working in the NHS. But, I am also a daughter, a sister, and a mother. My daughter is 3 years old, and I hope that by the time she is required to make decisions about her own health or that of her family, that she can do so from an informed view point, armed at least with a decent foundation of health knowledge.
To invigorate this conversation, I have created a petition too ‘Make Health Education a compulsory separate subject in all schools.’ And I welcome you to sign and share with the hope that the government will consider and respond to this proposal.