Discover why improving health education in primary schools is important and some actionable tips to ensure you provide every pupil with the tools they need to live a healthier and happier life.
There seems to be an overarching sense of something bigger than us. We realise that we can’t control everything, in the way we used to think we could.
If another pandemic comes along, we must adapt and try to come out the other side as unscathed as possible. In the meantime, we can prepare our minds and bodies to cope the best we can for whatever challenges come our way. In being truly tested, we’ve learned what matters in life.
When I talk with teachers and headteachers today, there is the same atmosphere in education. Of course, English and maths are the focus of school life. Literacy objectives weave through all lessons now, and a mastery approach to teaching maths is increasingly migrating from primary to secondary school education.
We recognise that we can skill our children up to be true mathematicians and not just regurgitators of procedures lacking in understanding.
But equal to this now is a recognition of the health of our pupils, both mentally and physically.
How can we encourage our pupils to make healthy choices in a western society where many adults are openly struggling to do so and finding it challenging to raise their children healthily? That is the million-dollar question.
The Current State of Health Education in Primary Schools and Society
When it comes to health education in primary schools, it can feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. You only have to look at some of the latest UK health statistics to see this:
- Obesity rates are high and rising – Data from the National Child Measurement Programme England shows that 25.5% of children were OBESE in the 2020/21 cycle. This figure had sat fairly consistently, yet still alarmingly high, around the 20% mark for the previous 10 years.
- Bariatric surgery is increasingly popular – “The total number of bariatric operations being performed on adults in the United Kingdom & Ireland continues to increase. Since 2010, activity has increased from nearly 6,000 operations per year to over 8,000 in 2018. A total of 70,461 bariatric operations are now held in the registry.”
- Takeaways are prolific in every town – The number of takeaways in the UK increased from 36,800 in 2015 to 46,200 in the U.K. in 2022. Just Eat and Deliveroo now bring unhealthy options straight to your door.
- Free gym memberships – Doctors prescribe free gym memberships to encourage less sedentary lifestyles.
I once knew a 6-year-old child that would eat eight bags of crisps a day! The health visitor had previously told his mother that eating fats was not a bad thing.
NHS guidance states, “Young children, especially those under the age of 2, need the energy provided by fat. There are also some vitamins that are only found in fats. This is why foods like whole milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish are so important.”
However, this lack of clarity on the types of foods he should be eating is a prime example of where better awareness and health education are required.
The mother had not been educated on how these fats should be monitored and managed as her child grew and should encompass healthy, oily fats rather than the saturated fats found in burgers, pies and crisps.
Not wanting to get into an argument after hearing quite vehemently the health visitor’s fats ‘justification’, I gently questioned, ‘but what about all that salt?’
The next time I saw this mum, a week later, she made a point of raising the issue again and told me “I’ve been thinking about what you said about the salt in the crisps. Well, I buy the ones with the little blue bag in and we don’t put the salt on.”
It serves to highlight that caving into children’s demands for fatty and salty junk foods is something that some parents will not only do but will also defend to the extreme when challenged.
How We Can Improve Health Education in Primary Schools
When teaching children how to cook, one of the things I constantly notice is that when a child has prepared and cooked something, they will eat it!
Parents’ jaws are on the floor when they see their child (who ‘would not eat veg’) coming back to the pot to request a second and third cup of the healthy veggie soup they have just made with their friends.
If we educate our children and parents about the key nutritional requirements for children, the changes at different stages throughout childhood and how we can build healthy options into our lifestyle, then we are allowing them to make these decisions in a fully informed way. And you do not have to look too far to find some great resources to support this either:
Building physical gardening sessions into your science curriculum for some classes is a brilliant way to improve health education in primary schools.
This idea builds knowledge of where food comes from and of seasonal eating. When I was an NQT many years ago, our headteacher used to take year 2 on ‘The Great Potato Hunt’ around Cannock town centre.
The children were amazed at how many things they ate were potatoes (although ending up at the town chip shop wasn’t particularly a healthy option).
Can we intrigue children enough to stop and think about how lettuce, carrots and cauliflower grow? Or where does spaghetti come from? It definitely does not come from the spaghetti tree of the famous April Fool prank.
One school I’ve visited made their own pasta with the children. They were amazed that they had done it and couldn’t wait to taste their success. You could even keep chickens to have your own eggs on site and add to your zero food miles efforts.
There is a lovely free whole class activity on the Premier League Primary Stars website. Children are amazed to learn about different body hydration sources associated with eating cucumber or melon and losses when breathing or going to the toilet.
It is a much more engaging alternative to nagging them about drinking water. Let’s face it, any chance to giggle about having a wee and poo is always a winner. So, if you can tie it in with an important message about hydration, that is even better.
Cultural and Historical Lessons
Learn about people through time, and people/landscapes all over the world, based on what food sources and cooking methods were/are available to them.
Surely making a Greek salad or Viking stew is more fun and memorable than a worksheet in a history or geography lesson?
Share Important Nutritional Guidance
The British Nutrition Foundation provides a great overview of nutritional needs for babies, toddlers, children and teens. It also has a handy table to tell us what we need (ie. iron), where it can be found, what it does for our body and ways to encourage children to eat it. This source of information is a perfect tool for science or PSHE lessons.
Reinvent School Lunch Times
What about school lunch times? Are they a scene of carnage or a pleasant experience? Would you like to sit and eat with the children? If not, that tells you something about the atmosphere created.
The DfE: School Food Standards Practical Guide offers ways in which eating in school can be a pleasurable experience. It may seem Utopian to aim for this, but many schools I visit acknowledge that snack times are a plethora of unhealthy options and that lunchtimes miss any kind of mindfulness about the healthier options.
Childhood is the time to set the tone. Will our children shovel in their dinner without giving it a second thought? Will they fall into a cycle of eating unhealthy ‘treats’? Or can we assist them in seeing how beautifully presented and truly tasted fruits, yellow peppers, olives, wraps and omelettes can make us feel happy and fulfilled too?
Teach Children to Eat Mindfully
It is actually simple to explore the mind/body connection when we take the time to stop and do so. Action for Kids encourages ‘children to remain present and in the moment by drawing upon their five senses to take small, intentional bites.’ First, this is done by just looking at the food and thinking about it, and then by closing our eyes and truly tasting it.
A Final Note on the Future of Health Awareness
All in all, yes, we have changed. We have had a massive wake-up call and felt powerless and frightened. But we learnt to take pleasure in the nature and beauty around us when out for a walk.
We learnt to take control of the foods we could grow when the shelves were sparse. We learnt the pleasure of making a banana loaf and taking time to prepare food and eat more slowly. But as we find ourselves being sucked back into the rat race and speed of everyday life, let’s remember the lessons from the pandemic and put health education in primary schools high on the agenda for our children.
To see how Services For Education can provide further support and guidance on spreading health awareness, take a look at our Health for Life programme. You will find several resources and services to help you inform the new generation about the positive impact of living a healthy lifestyle.
About the Author
Helen Grundy - Adviser, Services For Education
Helen qualified with a first class honours degree in English and Education Studies in 1998. A significant amount of her degree was spent studying in Amsterdam under the Hogeschool Holland, adding a TESOL element to her degree and enabling study and understanding of international approaches to education. Helen’s teaching career then took place across Staffordshire in infant, first and primary schools, taking on various roles in subject leadership, as SENCo and SLT, and achieving the NCTL Leadership Pathways award.
Noted successful practice resulted in Helen becoming a Leading Maths Teacher, supporting colleagues across the county. This became a role that she increasingly enjoyed and led naturally to a role in consultancy and advising.
Helen joined Services For Education in 2015 as an Education Adviser. Her role was primarily as a Maths Adviser however since joining the company has also become manager of the highly successful Health for Life in Primary Schools programme, NQT Manager as part of the LA approved Appropriate Body for NQT Induction and a member of the Statutory Assessment team.