UNESCO and WHO Launch Initiative to Promote Healthier School Environments
A new initiative by UNESCO and WHO aims to promote healthier school environments for all learners.

A new initiative by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization(WHO) on Tuesday aims to help countries to promote healthier school environments – including nutritious school lunches, opportunities for more physical activity, and mental health support – for 1.9 billion school-aged children and adolescents worldwide.

An estimated 365 million primary school children have globally suffered from hunger and increased rates of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to WHO, which announced the joint initiative today.

The Global Standards for Health-promoting Schools resource package includes eight “health promoting schools” standards developed to ensure all schools promote life skills, cognitive and socio emotional skills and healthy lifestyles for all learners. 

“Schools play a vital role in the well-being of students, families and their communities, and the link between education and health has never been more evident,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the announcement of the new initiative.

The new standards cover school and government policies and resources, school governance, leadership and community partnerships, a curriculum that supports health and wellbeing such as nutrition and safety, a social-emotional environment fostering equity and diversity and delivering school-linked health services.

The global standards will be piloted in Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Paraguay.

“These newly launched global standards are designed to create schools that nurture education and health, and that equip students with the knowledge and skills for their future health and well-being, employability and life prospects,” said Dr Tedros.

UNESCO Director-General Audre Azouley said schools that do not promote healthy lifestyles, is “no longer justifiable and acceptable”. 

“Education and health are interdependent basic human rights for all, at the core of any human right, and essential to social and economic development,” said Azouley.

COVID-19 resulted in emotional distress and mental health of school children

Overview of the health-promoting school implementation cycle

According to the two global bodies, comprehensive health and nutrition programmes in schools have significant impacts among school-aged children. Examples include Malaria prevention interventions resulting in a 62% reduction in absenteeism; provision of school meals increasing enrolment rates by 9% on average, and attendance by 8%; how free screening and eyeglasses have led to a 5% higher probability of students passing standardised tests in reading and mathematics.

Another example is how comprehensive sexuality education encourages the adoption of healthier behaviours, promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, and improves sexual and reproductive health outcomes such as the reduction of HIV infection and adolescent pregnancy rates.

Professor Susan Sawyer, one of the researchers at the Centre for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute who led the two-year project at the invitation of UNESCO and WHO, in a statement said links between children’s health, wellbeing and learning have been demonstrated through the impact of COVID-19 on school closures.

“In addition to the disruptive effects on student engagement, learning outcomes and educational transitions, there is growing global evidence of the impact of school lockdowns on children’s and adolescents’ emotional distress and mental health,” she said.

“There are concerns that students with major mental health disorders are at greater risk of permanently disengaging from education. While negatively affecting their future career prospects, early school leaving becomes a risk factor for poor health in adulthood.

The global standards contribute to WHO’s 13th General Program of Work target of ‘1 billion lives made healthier’ by 2023 and the global Education 2030 Agenda coordinated by UNESCO.  

 It was first articulated by WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF in 1995 and adopted in over 90 countries and territories.

“However, few countries have implemented it at scale, and even fewer have effectively adapted their education systems to include health promotion,” said WHO in a statement.

Image Credits: Commons Wikimedia, WHO.

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