The Ministry of Health (MOH), in seeking to promote healthy lifestyles to the Jamaican population, targets special settings as a means to achieving this goal. One of these special settings is the school. The MOH has had an on-going working relationship with the Ministry of Education (MOE) where targeted health interventions have been conducted in schools across the island. However, there has never been a sustained collaborative approach which is comprehensive in nature. It is for this reason that the MOH and the MOE have begun working together to implement a plan through which all schools will strive to be established as Health Promoting Schools.
A Health Promoting School has been defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one that constantly strengthens its capacity as a healthy setting for living, learning and working. As such, it becomes a place where all members of the school community work together to provide students with integrated and positive experiences and structure which promote and protect their health. Research has shown that a child who is healthy and surrounded by a healthy environment will produce better educational outcomes. The elements of a Health Promoting School (HPS) are:
- A Healthy School policy
- The school’s physical environment
- The school’s social environment
- Individual health skills and competencies
- Links with the community
- Health Services
The timeliness of the movement towards establishing Health Promoting Schools is evident in the work currently being done by the MOE and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to ensure that all schools become Child Friendly Schools. It implicitly and explicitly states in the Child Friendly Schools Manual that in order for a school to achieve a Child Friendly School status it has to satisfy the factors that make it a Health Promoting School. The current development of the School Improvement Plan by all schools also makes the timing ideal, as the schools are being asked to align their plan with both the Health Promoting School and Child Friendly School approach.
In January 2009, the MOH initiated a meeting with the MOE to discuss the growing health concerns impacting adolescents and pre-adolescents. Meeting participants discussed gaps within the school system related to concerns raised in the context of the MOH’s “Healthy Lifestyle Promotion Programme” – a programme which emphasizes an intersectoral approach to health promotion with a framework based on principles of the Ottawa and Caribbean Charters for Health Promotion. As a result of this meeting, the Chief Education Officer of the MOE and the Chief Medical Officer of the MOH established a committee to be co-chaired by the Director of Health Promotion and Education (MOH) and the Senior Education Officer of the Guidance and Counselling Unit (MOE). This committee is now known as the School Health Enhancement Committee (SHEC) and its main purpose is to facilitate the development and implementation of a Health Promoting School Framework inclusive of a monitoring and evaluation mechanism (MOH, 2012).
The committee’s first priority was to establish key health topics and create a draft plan of potential national solutions for gaps affecting schools island-wide. The key topics identified were:
- Physical Activity
- Environmental Health
- Mental Health
- Reproductive Health
- School Health Services
- Violence and Injury Prevention
- Substance Abuse
In addition, four key themes were identified across these health topics: capacity building, an effective referral system, a comprehensive public education programme, and staffing to address physical activity and nutrition concerns particularly at the primary level with an interest at the secondary level as well.
It is also important to note that there are existing vehicles within the school system which provide a stimulus for the school community towards promoting and protecting health. These vehicles include the joint committee of the MOE and MOH, the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) curriculum being taught in the schools, the Healthy Lifestyle Club (an initiative of the MOH which is established in some schools) and the Health Advisory Committee (a committee mandated by the HFLE Policy which brings together the key local stakeholders).