Ontario schools ideal place to improve student health

Our news & views

March 18, 2013

A new report from People for Education shows students need more physical education teachers, better coordination of services.

New data from People for Education show that fewer than half of Ontario’s elementary schools have specialist health and physical education teachers – and even when schools have specialists, most are part-time and the majority do not teach all students.

The People for Education report, Ready, Set, Go – Building Healthy Schools in Ontario, found that while the province has made significant progress in improving students’ achievement in reading, writing and math, Ontario is not doing as well in improving students’ health and well-being.

The province has introduced an array of policies to support students’ health over the last decade, but the separate policies don’t add up to one comprehensive school health framework – supported by funding, consistent goals, and an integrated approach.

The report, funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, says that it is possible to change the trajectory of children’s prospects for good health, and that schools are the ideal place to start. When schools support comprehensive health programs and resources – integrating all aspects of health and well-being, including mental, physical, social, sexual and relational health – the impacts on students are positive and lasting.

Findings show gaps in Ontario’s health strategies for students

Among the findings in the report, based on surveys from 1,000 Ontario schools:

  • Only 45% of Ontario elementary schools have a specialist Health and Physical Education teacher, and the majority of them are part time. In the GTA, 75% of schools have these specialists, compared to only 22% of Northern elementary schools.
  • Ontario has instituted 20 minutes of mandatory Daily Physical Activity (DPA) in its elementary schools, but many principals report it is a “low priority” in an “already packed school day.” They say there is  insufficient time, equipment, space, and teacher training to implement the program properly. One study in the GTA found that fewer than half of participating children were provided with DPA every day and no children were receiving the full 20 minutes. Principals report that there are often too many competing pressures to allow time for DPA.
  • 24% of Ontario elementary and 19% of secondary principals report that access to mental health services is poor.
  • Only 17% of elementary schools and 31% of secondary schools report having a staff member who acts as a liaison with the community. Even in those schools, the position is largely in name only, because three quarters don’t allot any time for the work.
  • 14% of elementary schools and 17% of secondary schools do not have access to a psychologist, but the numbers vary across the province. In Northern Ontario, 37% of elementary schools report no access, compared to only 4% of elementary schools in the GTA.

Comprehensive health framework needed

The report reviewed a range of Canadian and international research, including research from the Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health, which found that health and education are interdependent: healthy students are better learners, and better-educated individuals are healthier.

According to the Joint Consortium, comprehensive school health is an effective way to tap into the links between health and education, thus improving both health and educational outcomes and encouraging healthy behaviours that last a lifetime.

Recommendations

The report recommends:

  1. Ontario’s ministries of Health and Long Term Care, Education, and Children and Youth Services work together to develop a comprehensive framework to support the health of children and young people. The framework should include academic and health outcome goals and strategies to achieve them, with ongoing monitoring and evaluation.
  2. Schools and boards strengthen alliances with community agencies and other public services to support healthy schools. 
  3. The province increase funding to support existing healthy school policy.
  4. The province provide funding for school-based community liaison staff.
  5. The Ministry of Education release the complete revised Health and Physical Education curriculum for elementary and secondary schools.

Click here to download the report.

People For Education Viewpoint:

Curriculum is important, but it is not enough. And it is not enough to focus on only one aspect of children’s health. Ontario’s children need overall healthy schools policy that is supported by funding and that mandates that sectors such as health, education and children’s services work together towards common goals.

Ontario’s schools hold the potential to improve children’s chances for success – academically, physically, socially and emotionally. It is clear that if they are to live up to that potential, schools must be supported by integrated, comprehensive and adequately funded policy and programs.