Introducing targeted health education programmes in Irish primary schools can reduce obesity levels by almost 10%, research has indicated.
A study of the longer-term impact of an initiative rolled out in seven primary schools in Tallaght found that, four years after it started, 16% of their pupils were considered obese, compared to a 25% average in schools that did not run the programme.
The Healthy Schools Programme was co-ordinated by the Childhood Development Initiative (CDI) – an organisation focused on improving outcomes for children in disadvantaged areas.
The project aimed to improve both children and teachers’ understanding and practice relating to diet, exercise and mental health.
It was delivered over a period of three years (2009-11) in the intervention schools.
A study carried out by Trinity College as the programme was being delivered found no tangible impact on obesity levels.
But a follow-up survey, conducted last year, has identified benefits.
As well as the difference in obesity rates, the study found 10% of children in the intervention schools were overweight compared to 16% of children in the control schools.
Overall, 73% in the intervention schools were within normal weight for their age compared to 58% in the control schools.
Professor Catherine Comiskey of Trinity College, who carried out both the original and the follow-up study, said the results showed the need to take a medium rather than short-term view of the impact of interventions using a whole school approach.
“The results of this follow-up study confirm the potential of a health-focused intervention to benefit children, however it has taken a number of years for its benefits to become evident,” she said.
The Minister of State with responsibility for Primary Care, Alex White, said the findings were highly positive and would be considered by Government.
“We will review the findings of both Healthy Schools Programme studies to extract the evidence and identify how best to work effectively with schools in order to support and enhance the health of young children,” he said.
CDI chief executive Marian Quinn said successful intervention programmes needed to be embedded at the heart of all school policy and ethos, rather than “an add-on for teachers”.
“We have learnt that it is not about just doing the intervention,” she said.
“Outcomes varied across the intervention schools based on how ready a school was to deliver the programme and how embedded it was within school activity.”