Scanning Hong Kong's schools, one feels sad to see them getting unhealthier by the year. Different sorts of student problems, whether emotional, interpersonal, or behavioural, crop up and plague schools to varying degrees.
The list is long, ranging from emotional outbursts, depression, and substance abuse to bullying, gang fights, teenage pregnancies and lack of respect for authority, plus a wide range of learning difficulties, the seriousness of which is aggravated by the rash introduction of the integrated education policy, under which special needs students are placed in mainstream schools.
On the whole, students are unhappy, lacking self-esteem and self-confidence, although still scoring high on international tests. Educators are no healthier either. Incessant reform efforts and the lingering threat of school closures over the past decade have taken their toll, as have increased workloads, physical exhaustion and depression. Regrettably, schools have become an unhealthy place to study and work in. This issue deserves serious attention - as an unhealthy school environment can only breed unhealthy students.
Health is important for both personal and societal development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health holistically, seeking physical, social and mental health for all citizens. To them, the school is one important setting in which holistic health should be sought for all. Building healthy schools is also one of their most important strategies in the battle for global health. They have been striving to build regional centres to promote school health and foster healthy attitudes in schoolchildren.
According to the WHO, a healthy school is supposed to be built around six core areas: health policies, health services, health training for students, school ethos, physical environments and school-community relations. Obviously, it is prevention taking precedence over treatment and a total approach to school health and improvement, but in practice, individual schools are free to choose the entry point and level of engagement.
Hong Kong, fortunately, has been making its own efforts to promote school health. The Healthy School Award Scheme (2001-2004) and the subsequent QEF Thematic Network for Healthy Schools (2011-2015), both supported by the Quality Education Fund, have managed to inculcate a new, health-promoting culture in schools. Under these projects, around 500 schools have participated in the business of health education and health promotion. Some schools participating in these enterprises even managed to win awards that will qualify them for the WHO regional registry as health promoting schools.
In fact, Hong Kong has become a regional leader regarding school health promotion, thanks to the ongoing collaboration between the government and education and health professionals. We have built a basic curriculum and training structure for school health promotion and also a sound infrastructure to audit achievements, confer awards, disseminate good practice and spread the health message.
Research results have also shown that schools joining the health-promoting movement have experienced better health, in terms of better health achievements and learning for their students, better school ethos and so on. More importantly, we have also nurtured a community of health-promoting schools which have the potential to become mentors to their peers.
Schools that have benefited from this experience can serve as standard-bearers for health promotion, spreading the message to others. Hopefully, this practice will ultimately extend to all schools and kindergartens in the city. In addition, Hong Kong can also benefit from links with other major health-promoting players both regionally and globally in terms of information and experience exchange, and can also serve as a hub to promote regional resilience in the face of growing health threats.
Robin Cheung is a retired school principal