Helping children and young people engage with health promotion initiatives

Research on health promotion in schools undertaken by UWE Bristol has demonstrated that young people are more engaged with health initiatives when they take a more active role in them. Findings have directly influenced the innovative design and delivery of plans and policies at both regional and national levels.

In the past, many of the diet, alcohol, drug and sexual health initiatives promoted by schools have had limited impact. The UWE Bristol research team, including Judy OrmeMat Jones and Debra Salmon investigated how, why and to what extent the active participation of young people in both sexual health initiatives and healthier eating schemes can improve engagement and deliver long-term benefits.

Improving sexual health

The researchers evaluated interactive sexual health drama productions where young people were involved as actors, directors or audience members. Their work showed how involvement in these productions could help vulnerable young people respond more positively to messages promoting healthy sexual relationships.

The team found that participants were more easily able to identify, discuss and analyse a range of difficult sex and relationship related to real world situations. As a result of the findings, adapted versions of the drama approach were rolled-out nationally, benefiting over 1,600 school pupils, and involving a variety of health, social care and education professionals, art-based practitioners, governing bodies, and politicians.

The research also informed the Teenage Pregnancy Unit Good Practice Guidelines for arts-based work with children in the care system, as well as underpinning the decision to extend the approach into a national multi-agency training tool to address inequalities in health.

Supporting vulnerable young people

In a related piece of important work, the UWE Bristol team assessed the performance of the Brook Street Sexual Health Outreach Service in Schools – an initiative aimed at vulnerable young people and designed to tackle high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in Bristol.

The research concluded that the programme was successful in improving access to much-needed help and guidance and was instrumental in improving sexual health knowledge, preventing pregnancy, and in the early identification and treatment of sexually transmitted infections.

As a result, the service was commissioned across nineteen secondary schools in Bristol, adopting a number of recommendations from the research around the involvement of young people in service development, improving access to vulnerable groups, and developing ways for young people to move seamlessly into mainstream sexual health services. This approach was subsequently adopted by local authorities and health services nationally. 

Encouraging healthier eating

In addition to studies examining the impact of sexual health initiatives on young people, UWE Bristol researchers have been involved in ground-breaking work around the promotion of healthy eating habits.

The research team evaluated the high-profile Food for Life Partnership programme led by the Soil Association, to assess its impact on health and wellbeing across England. After an extensive examination of schools, pupils and parents, the team identified a number of positive outcomes from the programme for both children and their families, including increased take-up of healthy school meals, increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and improved performance at school.

The findings highlighted the important role of pupil input in informing and directing local initiatives and creating credible messages in schools and at home. They also showed that young people actively engage with healthier eating messages when they can participate in practical food education, grasp the origins of the food they eat and relate their learning to real-world situations.

Fit for the future

UWE Bristol’s research has had wide-ranging influence at regional and national policy levels, and helped to secure additional funding for development of the Food for Life Partnership programme

Commenting on the impact of the research, the Director of the Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) said: “This seminal report demonstrating the key impacts of FFLP has formed the evidence base from which we’ve been able to develop conversations with Public Health commissioners leading to the implementation of locally commissioned FFLP programmes that support the health strategies in local areas.”

In addition, the research prompted the Food for Life Partnership to adapt the initiative across other settings, including children’s nurseries, hospitals, universities and care homes. It has also contributed to shaping government public health policy, helping to accelerate improvements in school food by underpinning the business case for investing in increased school meal take-up.