Why every school needs a Health Mentor

By John Bishop, Managing Director, Evolve
When I founded Evolve in 2003 my aim was to help schools to develop healthier, happier and more fulfilled pupils. Thirteen years later, the issues of mental wellbeing, childhood obesity, challenging behaviour, pupil attendance and educational inequalities are more prevalent than ever.
These issues now have a spotlight shined over them by the media with both school leaders and public health officials looking for answers. However, many of the proposed solutions, or those already underway, are doomed to failure. Why? Because “experts” are not taking a holistic view by trying to address individual issues in isolation.
Let me give you some examples:
CAMHS Investment
Increases in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) investment to improve children and young people’s mental health services are welcome. However, we should be investing a greater percentage of funds into high quality preventative programmes that will significantly reduce the number of referrals further downstream.
The system is struggling to cope with the current need and forecasts show that the outlook is getting worse.
We need to adopt new approaches that help children to engage positively in activities that help to improve their wellbeing and mental health. Resilience is not always developed inside the classroom so we should be trying to shower children with positive experiences that will equip them with zest and vigor to embrace life’s challenges. This approach is in direct conflict with current government strategy to focus on narrow, measurable and short term outcomes churned out by exams and tests.

Character Education
The Character Education Fund was launched to ensure that more children develop a set of character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in education and work. I fear that this policy is nothing more than a tick in the box to compensate for the Education Minister’s apparent infatuation for English and Maths.
Surely character should be developed implicitly throughout all subjects within the curriculum. Isolating it within bespoke “character development” programmes does nothing more than promote the notion that personal skills can be turned off and on at will. This trait is certainly not attractive to me as an employer when looking for rounded individuals with genuine passion, sincerity and confidence.
Would this funding be better spent developing CPD programmes for teachers or at least giving them some say in how they feel they could better develop the personal skills of their pupils? The very thought of having to play rugby or take part in physical activities led by former army soldiers could lead to increased anxiety levels and possibly even more work for our CAMHS teams.
Sugar Tax
Chancellor George Osborne is to introduce a tax on companies producing and importing sugar-sweetened drinks, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity. The tax will take effect in 2018 and is targeted to raise £520 million in the first year, which will be used to fund a programme of after-school sports for the UK’s children.
Although I welcome the idea of both reducing sugar in diets and additional investment in extra curricular activities, the message that we are sending out here is seriously flawed.
Children cannot simply “run off” a poor diet. The number of calories in crisps, chocolate bars and sugary drinks are not used during a typical after school club. Regular physical activity in children is essential in establishing the foundations for a healthy lifestyle in adulthood and after school clubs are one way to achieve this.
However, the challenge that the government are trying to solve is the alarming rise in obesity levels and therefore any effective solution should be aiming at the root cause of this pandemic. Parental cooking classes, nutritional workshops, healthier school lunches and mentoring sessions to address emotional issues that often lead to overeating would deliver far more effective results.
We do need to give schools the resource, capacity and freedom they need to offer a broad extracurricular programme, but not paid for by corporations in a misguided attempt at weight loss. A Character Development Fund to be used for this purpose by schools would be a much leaner solution!
Evolve’s Evidence
Evolve have been researching the area of children’s health and wellbeing for the last 13 year. We now have independent evidence that our “Project HE:RO” programme leads to physical health gains, enhanced emotional wellbeing, improved pupil behaviour and better academic progress.
An independent study led by Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health, Jim McKenna of Leeds Beckett University, found that Evolve’s Health Mentors are having a huge and positive impact on the emotional wellbeing of pupils and teachers. This
helps address the entwined issues of childhood obesity, challenging behaviour, poor attendance and mental health.
The following short clips from the researchers involved in the Leeds Beckett University report emphasise some of the key lessons learned
How Health Mentors help schools work better (https://vimeo.com/157621046) How Health Mentors reduce stress (https://vimeo.com/157618406) Why there should be a Health Mentor in every school (https://vimeo.com/157618396)