Health and well-being in Scottish schools

Healthy Pupils in Healthy Schools was the focus of this year’s Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration Conference.

Sergio Della Sala opened the morning with a salutary warning to educationalists on the claims for neuro-scientific validity for a host of educational interventions.

Professor Della Sala described such schemes as the use of coloured overlays for improving reading skills, brain gym or the playing of Mozart to stimulate infants’ intellectual development as “pseudo-science”.

Educators must exercise scepticism in respect of any product sold as a solution to a hitherto insoluble problem and remain wary that the frequent repetition of statements do not make them facts.

Alan McLean, formerly Principal Psychologist in Glasgow said educationalists should start from what kind of young people we have and how we best guide them from being responsible learners to confident contributors.

“The teacher is never in neutral. You’re either energising your learners or draining them.” His twist on the healthy schools concept was in starting from teachers’ health. “A school with healthy children,” he asserted, “has healthy staff.”

Health and well-being cannot be separated from school ethos and culture and the cooperative work essential to a healthy culture is not only among the professionals but between the professionals and the young people. Teachers require to be supported to ask such challenging questions of young people as, “What is it like being a learner in my classroom?”

The warning however was that accepting and understanding the emotional needs of young people was at the centre of playing a powerful and effective role in creating a healthy culture in schools. In negotiating the emotional mine-field, Mr Mclean’s pithy advice to teachers was to be as impulsive as they can get away with and as cautious as they need to be.
Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, offered, as a definition of health, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” qualifying that by indicating that it was not “a state”, neither fixed for better nor for worse.

There was nothing, he suggested, inherently unhealthy about the Scots, although Scotland’s health has not improved over the last 30 years as fast as the rest of Europe. Scotland’s poor health record is a function of the poor health of Scotland’s poor.

He cited the research on comparative mortality rates in socially similar Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. While cancer and heart disease were only marginally higher mortality factors in Glasgow, mortality from violence, suicide, alcohol and drugs was substantially higher.

Death rates from socially related factors among young Scottish males have risen exponentially in the last 30 years, a result, he suggested, of the emptiness of life in which jobs (particularly traditional, skilled jobs), meaning and purpose have disappeared.

Quoting Antonovsky’s research into concentration camp survivors, Sir Harry suggested that the capacity to overcome stress flowed from a confidence that one’s social and physical environment will be comprehensible and manageable. Stress is the causal factor in violence, suicide, alcohol- and drug-abuse; control is the antidote to stress.

The pursuit of health requires escape from the disempowering deficit model, focused on fixing health problems. Indeed such a model was rebuilding, generation on generation, a cycle of poverty, failure, dependency and poor health. The challenge, Sir Harry suggested, “is to put people back in control of their own lives.”

SCSSA provided a day of challenges to educationalists from a wide scan of professional and academic perspectives, sending teachers back to their schools with a rich comprehension of health and well-being and of the real world in which schools operate.

 

The above article was first publ;ished in Holyrood Magazine on 3 June 2013: http://www.holyrood.com/2013/06/from-the-chalkface-a-teacher-writes-2/

2 Comments
  1. Today’s adolescents are the first generation to have grown up less healthy than their parents, doctors said yesterday. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases have replaced childhood infections of the past, such as tuberculosis and polio, and are exacting a greater toll. The difference is that the modern threats to teenagers’ health are preventable.

  2. Suicide (i.e., taking one’s own life) is a serious public health problem that affects even young people. For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4600 lives lost each year. The top three methods used in suicides of young people include firearm (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%).

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