Worlds of Education

Credits: General Teaching Council for Scotland (Flickr)
Credits: General Teaching Council for Scotland (Flickr)

The child at the centre: the Scottish experience on health and wellbeing in schools

published 23 November 2017 updated 25 October 2023
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Scotland is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to promoting the health and well-being of school-aged children. Since Scotland got its own parliament in 1999, the Scottish Government has full responsibility for its education system. Top priority in the national policy is to reduce health inequalities in the Scottish society.

The poorest die earlier and have higher rates of disease, including mental illness. Scotland's health is improving, but there are big differences between rich and poor. In 2006, men could on average expect 67.9 years of healthy life and women 69 years. In the most deprived 15% of areas in Scotland, though, men could only expect 57.3 years of healthy life and women 59 years. Health inequalities can be a matter of personal lifestyles such as smoking or lack of physical activity. However, as important are community, economic, cultural and environmental factors. One of the Scottish priority areas in this domain are children. In Scotland today, at age 5, the learning gap between children from the most advantaged and most disadvantaged families is already 6-13 months in problem-solving ability and 11-18 months in expressive vocabulary.

Scotland as an active member of the Schools for Health in Europe (SHE) network was one of the first countries in the European region to widely introduce the health promoting school concept, which is a whole school approach to health and well-being, at the beginning of this century. As a next step, the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was developed and is now implemented in all compulsory schools (primary and secondary) . The new curriculum is strongly child-centered and is intended to help closing the gap between high and low achieving students.

The curriculum is a continuing process to encourage more learning through experiences, to best ensure that children and young people are prepared for their future. Children should all develop the capacities to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. One of the main changes was to create 8 curriculum areas (Languages, Mathematics / Numeracy, Expressive Arts, Technologies, Sciences, Social Studies, Health and Well-Being, Religious and Moral Education).This makes Scotland one of the first countries in the world where ‘health and well-being’ is not only fully integrated into the curriculum, but also where the quality of education takes both numeracy and literacy scores and the student’s performance on health and wellbeing into account.

In 2015 and 2016, two study tours from the Netherlands were organized to Scotland . The groups consisted of school leaders, teachers and programme developers from national, regional and local level. The Netherlands has a nation-wide programme to promote health in schools, but is interested in learning from experiences abroad. Visits were organized to pre-primary, primary and secondary schools who are leaders in the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence, and talks with Education Scotland, the organization responsible for the new curriculum, the school inspectorate and researchers . Most participants were impressed to see in practice how the new curriculum for excellence led to a new pedagogics where children are at the centre of learning. It also gave them inspiration to focus less on the traditional health topics(such as promoting healthy eating, physical activity and mental health in school), but instead look more on a holistic approach to health and well-being, including active participation of students.

A recent OECD study on the quality of the Scottish education system (‘ Improving schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective', 2015) revealed many positive developments, such as higher levels of academic achievements in science and reading than international averages and a more equal spread of achievement levels . Also a relatively high number of Scottish students are resilient. But the implementation of the Curriculum of Excellence needs improvement specifically concerning the evidence base.

Find out more about the Curriculum for Excellence on the website of Education Scotland.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.