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Want to help your students? Give 'em health

With wellbeing now a watchword for independent educators, Tallulah Speed looks at how schools and their caterers are supporting students with sports

Posted by Julian Owen | October 05, 2018 | Teaching

In the wake of the ‘Those who can, teach’ campaign that ran in 2000 a cruel affix emerged from the playground: ‘Those who can’t, teach PE’. This taunt reflected the ascribed order of physical education at the time – the ‘lesson off’ lesson, the subject that non-academics could take solace in.

Fast-forward 18 years and look where we are now. Mental wellbeing is now at the core of schools’ itineraries, and physical education has been recognised as a fundamental part of that as educators seek to support the whole child, rather than support the antiquated academia-only model that has loomed large in generations past. Liz Laybourne, Headmistress of Burgess Hill Girls, agrees: “Our whole ethos is about educating the whole child. So for us, the extra-curricular programme is incredibly important because whether it’s sport or another extra-curricular activity, we believe if the girls get involved in those activities it will actually help them perform better in their academic studies.”

Arguably independents have a greater burden of responsibility when it comes to a more holistic method of education. Naturally boarding schools have long since had an enhanced duty of care, but additionally scholarship pupils and similar high performers also need rounded support to ensure they have the strength of character to support their capacity for performance.

Laybourne sees supporting student wellbeing with a two-pronged approach: top-down and ground-up: “We as a school need to actually take some control, and intervene if we feel they’re putting too much pressure on themselves. But it’s also celebration as well, recognising what they’re doing. Whether that’s playing for Sussex or competing for their school, it’s about recognising that, celebrating their success and letting them know that we believe in what they’re doing.” As any office worker will attest, recognition for successes can go a long way towards bolstering self-belief and mental strength ahead of challenges, instead of watching out for the axe to fall.

Glenalmond College students

For Graham Smith, Director of Sport at Glenalmond College, making students aware of support channels is key. “Ensuring the pupils understand that there is help available from a multitude of different sources, should they require, is crucial. Awareness of mental health support has to be very visual,” he comments. “It is the responsibility of all staff involved with the pupil to keep an eye on how they are doing mentally.”

For Glenalmond these support sources encompass coaches, teachers, pastors and school nurses. With such a range of help available it’s no surprise that regular communications with and regarding the pupil, are key. Smith confirms: “A discussion with the pupil about what they want to do, their schoolwork, sports training and their participation in representative games will take place regularly and we chat with the other staff often to see how they are doing in class.”

While these are prudent measures for top performers and the anxiety-inclined, all this doom-mongering is not to detract from the very real advantages of physical activity for students, a subject which Smith is content to wax lyrical on. “Lots of staff comment 

on how our pupils’ concentration and behaviour is improved by regular participation in sport, whether this is our main competitive sports or more recreational sports used as a pastime. A senior rugby player recently changed his predicted grades from D to B through improved focus and concentration.”

And it’s not just the teachers that have tuned into the benefits, claims Smith. “During the last exam period, we noticed a lot more girls attending the early morning strength and conditioning sessions to work out, which in turn helped calm their nerves and anxieties they were experiencing from the pressure of final exams.”

Girls' football festival

Educating the whole character

This is a world view very much in line with that of Andy Collins, Acting Deputy Head of Millfield. “It is my firm belief that academic performance and adolescent wellbeing are synergistic; one cannot flourish without the other,” he comments. “At Millfield, we not only teach pupils academic and cognitive skills, we also encourage them to listen to their bodies and challenge thoughts which are not positive, so they can manage their own physical and mental health as they take those all-important first steps after leaving school.” Again, echoed in Collins’ words is the shift towards educating the whole character, building the confidence required to live in an always-on world of academic pressures, social media and the endless and eternal documentation both have arguably devolved into.

But there’s another inescapable side to wellbeing, and its name is nutrition. While once school dinners were an all-beige vat-ladled monstrosity, today, awareness (thanks Jamie!) is creating a paradigm shift in how we feed our new generation of academics. For Wan Mac, Head of Dietetics and Nutrition at Sodexo it’s a shift that can’t come fast enough. “One of the most obvious, yet under-recognised factors in the development of major trends in mental health is the role of nutrition. The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing at a rapid pace. As well as its impact on short- and long-term mental health, the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.”

With these damning illnesses it seems almost churlish to mention the short-term effects on academia and sporting performance, but these are certainly just as well documented.

Attitudes in schools are changing as nutritional awareness becomes more widespread, but there may still be a crucial neglected area: the nutritional mindset of the students themselves. For a generation raised absorbing highly sophisticated ad campaigns that run all the way from first ad to point of sale, making healthy choices can be more challenging than is first perceived.

For Amanda Ursell, Consultant Nutritionist for CH&CO Independent, this conditioning is a battle that can be fought both ways: “[CH&CO] have carried out research that shows how the use of ‘social norm’ messaging can gently nudge pupils towards healthier choices, without overtly making a fuss about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.”

For Mac, countering a negative psychological mindset is about giving real estate to whole foods and working to equip students with their own nutritional know-how: “Our counters are regularly refreshed using vibrant, colourful and seasonal displays. However, providing a nutritious and wholesome lunch is only half the battle. We also need to equip today’s children with the skills they need to feed themselves – therefore we aim to encourage and support healthy eating as well as providing recipe cards to inspire.”

Additionally vending machines, the former mainstay of the nutritionally barren packaged good, is undergoing its much-needed modern revamp as schools seek to keep the convenience while canning the empty calories. Tom Allen, Food Development Director of Independent Schools at Sodexo, agrees. “Overall, vending machines are a lot better than 10 years ago,” he comments. “If they are full of water and dried fruit rather than crisps and sugary drinks then they can offer access to nutritious snacks in a convenient manner.”

Ursell agrees: “It is absolutely possible to stock vending machines with healthy and nutritious options, from drinks to snacks and sandwiches. There are now ‘all green traffic light’ cereal bars on the market, which are nut-free, that along with mixes of dried fruits can make ideal snacks.”

There’s no doubt we’re in a challenging age of adolescent pressures and schools are rightly looking to minimise the issues they face while still encouraging students to reach their potential. While the current watchword is undoubtedly ‘wellbeing’, it seems the current maxim is ‘teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’, with schools and caterers alike seeking to empower young people with the strength of will to pave the path for their own excellent health. And with rapid technological and social changes creating an uncertain horizon, perhaps it could be argued that instilling solid mental fortitude is, in fact, the only certain defence against an ever-shifting landscape. 

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