Skip to main content

Working with schools to improve the health of school-aged children

Case studies

While the health of older people gets lots of attention in the debate about the future of the NHS and the ageing population, there has been a host of warnings about the state of children’s health too.

In her 2012 annual report, England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies highlighted the “concerning” levels of obesity and mental health problems being seen among the young. In what effectively was a call to arms, she said the health of children needed to become more of a priority.

Similar warnings have been made year after year by the Children’s Society in its annual Good Childhood Report, particularly over emotional wellbeing. The charity’s reports have highlighted growing levels of unhappiness, depression and anxiety, which it says is leading to self-harm.

But despite these repeated warnings only limited progress has been made. In early 2017 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published an in-depth analysis which concluded that it was “tragic” so many children were growing up with their health at risk.

Latest figures show by the start of primary school, one in five children are obese or overweight, but by the end that has risen to one in three. Mental health problems are also prevalent with one in 10 school children of all ages having a diagnosable disorder. It means half of all life-time cases of psychiatric disorders start before the age of 14.

But these are not the only measures where the health of school children is a concern.

While levels of smoking, drug taking and sexually transmitted infections are all declining, England still performs poorly compared to other countries. Some 6 per cent of 15-year-olds are smoking regularly, 9 per cent have drunk alcohol in the past week and 15 per cent have tried cannabis.

On the plus side, teenage pregnancy rates are at an all-time low and the UK has one of the highest rates of coverage for HPV vaccination for cervical cancer and
genital warts with over 80 per cent of girls completing the course.

But what the headline figures do not show is the variation that exists from area to area. The most deprived areas have the most acute problems. Smoking rates among 15-year-olds living in the poorest areas are twice that of those living in the most affluent, for example. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of year six pupils are overweight or obese in the most deprived areas, compared to 27 per cent in the least deprived.

Coverage of vaccinations can also vary significantly in different areas; the first vaccine coverage report for the tetanus, diphtheria and polio schools based immunisation programme in England (2015/16) shows coverage which ranged from 22 per cent to hundred per cent in year 10 and 61 per cent to 100 per cent in year 9. Similarly varied was the coverage of the school based meningitis vaccination, ranging from 59 per cent to 100 per cent in year 9, 17 to 94 per cent in year 10 and zero to 100 per cent in year 11.