English schools 'neglecting' pupils' health, experts claim

Health Reporter

Schools in England are neglecting, and may even be actively harming, the physical and mental health of their pupils, a group of leading experts have claimed.

They said children’s wellbeing, personal development and health was being ignored amid an ever increasing focus on “maximising students’ academic attainment”, which could lead to stress and anxiety, while also pushing some pupils into high risk behaviour like smoking, drug-taking and violence.

In an editorial for the British Medical Journal, senior academics from the University of London, Cardiff University and other leading institutions said that the ideas underpinning current education policy, which they said placed academic attainment at odds with personal and health development in schools, were “deeply flawed”.

While the authors identify problems which are part of long-term trends, they also point to “recent developments” introduced under Michael Gove including plans to test pupils at an increasingly young age, and the reduction of Government funding and focus on Health Schools programmes, which they said were making the situation worse.

The six experts were critical of the decision to retain personal, social and health education (PSHE)’s status as non-statutory subject and said that under Mr Gove, Ofsted inspection reports no longer had to “focus specifically” on how well schools promoted their pupil’s health.

Meanwhile, a longstanding focus on league tables, and a drive to set examinations for pupils at an increasingly young age was proving “toxic”, particularly for children’s mental health, one of the authors said.

Dr Adam Fletcher, senior lecturer in social science and health told The Independent that “narrow measures of attainment” were leading many schools to focusing on a narrow range students, while others became disengaged from school, making it more likely that they would become involved with what the editorial called an "anti-school" peer group, with a higher likelihood of taking up smoking, drug-taking or even violent behaviour.

“At the same time as there has been an increase in testing, there has been an increase in depression and anxiety, but it’s impossible to attribute health effects to certain policies,” Dr Fletcher said. “However there is very strong evidence from trials which shows that where schools do introduce a coordinated programme of work, in their curriculum and through a healthier school environment, students’ health does improve – better diet, more physical activity, reduced smoking, reduced bullying – all the key health indicators.”

He added: “At the moment the education policy in England doesn’t support that. If Ofsted were inspecting these things there would be a much stronger incentive for schools to implement those evidence-based programmes.”

In their editorial, published in the BMJ today, lead author Professor Chris Bonell of the Institute for Education at the University of London and colleagues argue that treating the choice between academic attainment and health as “a zero-sum game” made no sense, citing evidence that schools with healthier pupils achieved better grades.

They said that schools in Finland, Sweden, Australia and Singapore, which all have higher academic attainment than England, also “place greater emphasis than schools in England... on students’ overall development, and social and emotional learning.”

A DfE spokesperson said the Government refused to apologise for “encourag[ing] schools to maximise students’ academic attainment”.

“But our reforms will actually reduce the number of tests that children take,” the spokesperson added. “We have abolished modules in GCSEs so pupils are not constantly facing a stream of exams. And we are reforming A and AS levels so pupils are not forced to take exams throughout sixth form. All schools should provide a broad education and have a duty to promote the wellbeing of their pupils. Ofsted last year published a report showing that schools which delivered excellent PSHE classes were more likely to be rated outstanding overall.”

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