The existing education policy relating to Key Stages 1 and 2 makes it almost compulsory for schools to tackle issues currently prominent in our society. These include directives on such polarising topics as sex education and identity politics.
Recently directives on health and obesity have also been added to curriculum policy.
This is partly because illnesses and diseases relating to diet cost the NHS – and therefore, the government – millions of pounds every year. But despite the seemingly altruistic nature, it seems that government bodies and schools are using them as tokenistic gestures, dealing with symptoms and not the actual causes of ill-health. To have the desired effects, we should be tackling diet, food and exercise in a more thought-out and coordinated manner – something that is likely to take a decade or two.
Having just a single week dedicated to raising awareness of keep-fit, good food and health is often the total sum of what schools offer. After that week – when they have ticked the appropriate boxes – schools don’t have to touch on such topics for another year or so. So it renders the schools’ work during that theme week simply fatuous and/or ineffective.
Food, health and fitness should form a single examinable subject with its own course specification, practical assessments and subject knowledge. If we teach pupils about the increasing dangers of GM foods, the pesticide and chemicals that we spray on our fruit and vegetables; if we teach pupils about the dangers of fatty food, convenient food, salty or sugary food, and if we teach how companies inject meat with antibiotics and water to make it look bigger, perhaps children will become more conscious of what they are consuming. And perhaps there might be less demand for junk food and thus we might see fewer kebab houses springing up every other day in our high streets.
We all know that there is a direct correlation with food and health and yet schools don’t think that such subjects warrant consideration, time or resources.
If we promote self-sufficiency by encouraging pupils to grow basic vegetables of their own – tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, cabbage etc. – and hone in on the advantages of organic food, perhaps the new generation will have more awareness of their physical health and what unhealthy food is doing to their bodies. In doing so, we begin to change the culture through attitudes whilst giving schools opportunity to address climate change, nutrition, digestion, recycling etc. – topical issues pertinent to our times. Not many schools have the scope for this kind of activity but if the subject was formulated into an academic structure it would take on a life of its own.
However, at present, there are one or two barriers which prevent such important government’s directives on education to have any meaningful impact.
Firstly, the curriculum is burgeoning with schools’ focus on academic interest. STEM subjects take precedence over virtually everything else – at the expense sports, arts, music and dance as well as vocational subjects. This narrow – and blinkered – focusing is leaving pupils disengaged, disenfranchised and disaffected with education and society at large. As such, educational management need to refrain from putting so much emphasis on exams and assessments because it’s having adverse effects. Through anxiety, pressure and even depression, they have impacted pupils’ health and their engagement with their studies. Despite what schools purport, their obsession with academic results outweighs their concerns for pupils’ mental health and well-being.
Secondly, there is the issue of finance or budget. Tight funding in most schools has limited schools’ recruitment of staff specialising in pupils’ welfare. Schools simply can’t afford to employ full-time or even part-time pastoral staff. This has meant that for years pupils have gone without a counsellor/nurse.
Cutbacks have also resulted in a reduction of learning support assistants and the withdrawal of extra-curricular activities such as music and sports. Coupled with the increasing pressure on head teachers to gain Ofsted’s outstanding grade, evidently, pupils have become the unrepresented, voiceless victims.
Moreover, budget restrains aside, there is also the question of curriculum management. In many schools, there is the absence of a holistic approach that focuses on the whole child. Instead, schools focus on tangible targets like exam results because they are in the business of creating economic entities, units fit for the workforce.
So it’s understandable as to why policymakers pay so much lip-service to employers and captains of industry and commerce. Our governments have always tried to do a balancing act – safeguarding the interest of employers and corporations whilst ensuring schools provide a relatively decent education. In such an equation, they don’t have time to look at what makes an individual child unique, or creative, or outstanding as long as they have the necessary tools for the market economy. In the last couple of decades or so, when has any teacher – bombarded with unrealistic deadlines and curriculum targets – addressed the philosophical issue of happiness, contentment or self-fulfilment?
Pupils’ well-being is, in reality, fairly low on schools’ list of priorities because they don’t have the time, the resources, the commitment nor the appropriate, recognisable tools of measurement. But by replacing RE with something like social ethics which would enable pupils to involve themselves with critical thinking about themselves, who they are and their relationship with society. Such a holistic approach to health and well-being is likely to be more effective than covering it on an ad-hoc basis.
At present, physical and mental health remain ignored at the detriment of pupils. Schools proclaim that they prioritise these – and some evidence suggests that they do – but they do not do this in a meaningful way. That’s a shame because ultimately it’s the pupils – the next generation – who suffer not the schools, head teachers nor the government.