Children and young people are facing a dual crisis in mental and physical wellbeing, which has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing cost of living challenges. Recent research from Barnados has shown that over a fifth of young people from poorer backgrounds think their life will amount to nothing, no matter how hard they try, and calls to Childline from children under eleven struggling with loneliness have risen by 71% in the last 5 years. Additionally, according to the NHS, this year alone there has been a 39% rise in young people needing treatment for mental health issues.
Compounding the issue is children and young people are spending more time online, which has led to a generation who are moving less and living more sedentary lifestyles than ever before. We know from experience and research this leads to unhealthy and unhappy children. It is vital active lifestyles are embedded at an early age and this is why we believe schools which provide opportunities for children to be active throughout the school day should sit at the heart of every community.
When We Play Life Gets Better
This blog came out of a talk I gave at the Why Sports Unlocking the Potential Conference in October 2023. Early on in talks I give, I often ask the audience to stand up and we play a short, interactive game. The activity will vary depending on the size of the audience or the constraints of the room but what doesn’t vary is the change in energy in the room afterwards. Generally, people will have been sitting for a number of hours and just by standing, moving, and engaging in human connection with others for a few minutes, this will fire up the neural pathways and shift oxygenated blood to the brain, chemical reactions will lift the mood and as people connect in a fun activity, levels of enjoyment and happiness will increase. Hopefully the audience also become more present, alert and receptive to the rest of my talk! The same is entirely true in the school day, where making space for activity within the busy timetable creates a positive impact on student engagement and the climate for learning.
Unhealthy and Unhappy Children Don’t Learn
If young people don’t learn, they don’t achieve their potential, and we don’t have a society fit for purpose.
The evidence base is clear there are positive links between physical activity levels and academic attainment . Making lessons more physically active increases children’s attention and engagement and improves their overall academic achievement while also improving classroom behaviour. Regular activity is linked with higher wellbeing, reduced depression and an increase in a sense of belonging. At the Youth Sport Trust we also work with hundreds of schools who are re-imagining the intent and impact of their Physical Education curriculum, using the context of sport to foster wellbeing, personal development and skills for learning and life. With all this great evidence so widely available, it is worrying is that only 47% of young people are currently meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation of 60 minutes a day of physical activity.
There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.
As the title of the talk suggested, we believe daily physical activity, weekly PE and an Inclusive School Sport Offer are the foundation of a well school. But what is a well school?
A Well School is one which prioritises staff and student wellbeing and deliberately creates a culture and climate of wellbeing as the driver of engagement, happiness and fundamentally academic performance. It understands children and young people are more effective learners when they are happy and healthy, it also recognises a school cannot go on channelling investment and energy into ‘pulling children out of the stream when they are drowning’ as the famous Desmond Tutu quote reminds us, ‘we have to get upstream and stop them falling into the stream’ and ideally teaching them to swim so they won’t drown if they do. In the complex and challenging social context of education today, prioritising staff and student wellbeing is all about being proactive and being a Well School is about re-imagining how we achieve the best educational outcomes and create a culture which allows everyone to reach their potential. Specifically, a well school has three core pillars:
Understanding that great learning starts with staff health and wellbeing, and a well school is led by the voice and experiences of students and staff.
Being in the best shape to thrive by developing both physical and healthy literacy in all young people so children are prepared and able to take responsibility for their physical and mental health today and in the future.
Building an enrichment programme which fosters the things that make us human and offers life experiences and develops life skills, which build social and cultural capital to help young people thrive in the modern world.
The YST Well School Movement now has 2000 schools working together, sharing practice and learning from each other – they are inspired and inspiring a new normal for learning and the development of young people. Contrary to previous assumptions, we have been delighted to find out through our insight this focus on wellbeing is one that is welcomed by parents too. When asked in a recent survey to choose the most important factors when deciding on a secondary school for their children, wellbeing of pupils at the school was the most popular choice, with 65% of parents saying this was an important factor.
The three most important bones
Asking a room full of PE teachers, sports people and everyone else involved in the fitness industry what the three most important bones are to a child certainly generates a healthy discussion, but no one has yet come up with the three I believe are the most important.
- Backbone – Activity builds resilience in children so they can resist pressure and bounce back from adversity.
- Funny Bone – Physical activity must be fun. When children and young people are asked, this alongside friendship is what they want most from play and sport.
- Wishbone – Through movement we can boost mood and build optimism for a healthy, happy and successful future.
I would encourage us all to change the narrative on play, physical activity, physical education and sport in schools. What were previously seen as ‘nice to have’ and potentially optional, could be just the things we need to build happier healthier learners who are well enough to benefit from the great teaching and learning in our schools.
I encourage all governors, teachers, parents and industry partners to visit the Well Schools website (www.well-schools.org) and capture a glimpse of what schools of the future, and for the future could look like.
Ali Oliver was speaking at the Why Sports ‘Unlocking the Potential’ conference that took place on the 25th October in London. The conference provides a platform for the leaders across sport, leisure, physical activity and well-being to share information regarding the progress of national policies and strategies. It offers the opportunity to engage with like-minded professionals and be part of the system change that supports the nation to live happier and healthier lives.