Background and aims
The school has consistently been identified as a key setting in which to improve both health and educational outcomes for children and young people. The aims of the Government’s National Healthy School Programme imply that schools, by achieving healthy school status, can contribute to outcomes relating to health, educational attainment and social inclusion. However, there is little research on the relationship between healthy school status, school improvement and educational attainment either in terms of outcomes, or in terms of the processes through which outcomes might be reached. This research set out to explore the relationship between healthy school status and school improvement. The aims of the research project were to:
• understand the process through which the National Healthy School Standard initiated change in identified schools;
• explore the consequences of change – intended and unintended – from a variety of stakeholders’ perspectives;
• explore the relationship between identified changes and outcomes;
• reconsider the role of the National Healthy School Standard in bringing about school improvement.
A case study approach to the research was adopted in which three primary schools at different stages of involvement with the healthy schools programme, were recruited to the study. Case studies typically use multiple methods and the following methods of data collection were used to operationalise the aims:
• semi-structured interviews with school teachers with a specific role in the implementation of the initiative in their school;
• focus groups with school children;
• non-participant observation of activities that had been introduced as a result of involvement with the healthy schools programme;
• documentary analysis of sources that had been produced as a result of the accreditation process, for example, the school audit, agendas and minutes from school council meetings;
• analysis of secondary data sources such as the latest Ofsted Inspection Report.
1 Understanding the role of the National Healthy School Standard in initiating change
It was evident that the National Healthy School Standard was seen as a catalyst for change within schools in three ways:
• the framework and process stimulated and enabled schools to address existing problems, such as bullying and playground behaviour, in a systematic way;
• it provided impetus to reviewing the use of existing resources, such as the way the playground was organised and used;
• it provided a rationale for developing new ways of working with children by providing ideas for enabling their participation through the creation of a school council.
2 Characteristics of the National Healthy School Standard that facilitated change
The features of the National Healthy School Standard that were viewed as facilitating schools’ involvement with the initiative were:
• the framework gave emphasis to the importance of a ‘whole school approach’ to the work, which was consistent with the way in which the three case study schools wanted to work;
• the whole school approach meant that it was possible for schools to develop consistent links between the curriculum and the wider school environment, such as in relation to developing work around citizenship;
• because the framework was based on a broad concept of health in which health and educational outcomes were seen as inter-related, this allowed the joining up of a variety of initiatives into a coherent and consistent approach to the development of policy and practice;
• the emphasis on ‘giving pupils a voice’ was seen as highly desirable in the case study schools;
• the framework was seen as providing a helpful structure to the accreditation process without being overly prescriptive, such that schools could identify their own priorities and targets;
• the case study schools thought that the values of the healthy schools programme were consistent with the schools’ values such that it was easy to engage with the initiative.
3 Understanding the impact of change on school improvement
In terms of school improvement the case study schools viewed the impact of changes they had introduced as part of the healthy schools process as operating at two inter-related levels: namely the school and the individual child. This was explained in the following ways:
• consulting with, and involving children was seen as the foundation from which better standards of behaviour and an improved school ethos would develop;
• developing and proactively implementing strong anti-bullying and behaviour management policies, together with the development of participative structures for enabling children’s involvement in the life of the school, led to improvements in the physical and social environment of the school, which helped create a setting that engaged children and was conducive to learning;
• enabling the participation of children led to changes in the quality of relationships between teachers and children;
• collectively, these changes in the physical and social environment of the schools were seen as contributing to the development of children who were predisposed to learn;
• school improvement was seen primarily in terms of creating the conditions within which children can flourish rather than in hard quantitative performance measures.
Whilst the relatively small scale nature of this research limits its generalisability, the main value of case study research is in terms of generating rich data from which explanations can be developed. In terms of how the National Healthy School Standard might act as a vehicle for school improvement a number of points can be made:
• policies and practice are inter-related and can make a difference to the life of the school because they are the mechanisms through which values and priorities are transmitted. This may go some way towards explaining the role of the school in effecting positive health and educational outcomes, particularly for those children and young people who are most at risk of exclusion;
• given the fact that the experience of bullying is a major factor in undermining individual health and wellbeing as well as the ethos of the school, strategies to manage its occurrence, as revealed in the three case study schools, are likely to lead to beneficial outcomes;
• it is not only academic achievement that matters in terms of understanding children and young people’s trajectories into adulthood. Rather, the extent to which children have been engaged with school appears to have important ramifications for their life chances.
The findings from this study generally support the notion that the NHSS can be a vehicle for school improvement. However, there remain a number of challenges:
• it will be important to find ways of engaging those schools who are perhaps reluctant to consider the healthy schools programme as a school improvement initiative as they are likely to be the ones that have most to gain from it;
• finding more sensitive and specific ways of measuring the impact of the NHSS would be valuable. However, the impact on outcomes such as attendance and lifestyle might be seen as appropriate short term indicators.
Whilst it is likely that pressure from policy makers nationally and locally will be for ‘hard evidence’ of outcomes (usually interpreted as quantitative measures of performance) it may be of value to ensure that efforts are made to capture change at the level of the school in terms of policies and practice. Health and educational outcomes are often reached indirectly rather than directly, and revealing the role of the individual school setting – in terms of culture, ethos and structures such as a school council – in mediating outcomes is likely to be important in understanding the processes through which schools improve. Furthermore, this suggests that schools have an important role in helping children and young people overcome some of the negative dimensions of living in disadvantaged circumstances.