Michele Sutton is principal of Bradford College and Chair of the Healthy Further Education (Healthy FE) Steering Group.
The Programme was set up in 2008 to meet the health needs of those studying and working in FE, and its enthusiastic chair insists it's the responsibility of all FE colleges to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff, including access to good-quality health services.
FE News takes her aside from a busy schedule, and discusses the main health and wellbeing challenges facing FE colleges today, and how they can work with external partners to address these.
What are the health issues facing today’s FE learners?
We know that Further Education learners are a complex group encompassing a wide demographic including 14 -19 year olds, adult learners with limited previous education experience, people updating their vocational skills and in some cases, higher education students. In 2001 there were over two and a half million people enrolled in an FE college in England (ONS: Census 2001) and that number has grown exponentially. The health and wellbeing issues faced by FE colleges usually reflect those that are prevalent in the local area; for example where a city has a higher than average rate of teen pregnancies, the FE colleges in the area will reflect that in some of the problems that individual learners may have. I believe it is unrealistic to assume that all FE learners face the same health issues or that there is a ‘one size fits all’ solution that can be applied to every FE college in the country. As part of the Healthy FE Programme, a self-review tool will be available to assist colleges in identifying their own health and wellbeing priorities. I’m confident that this will enable colleges to overcome that first challenge of knowing where to start and how to focus their efforts. In the meantime, the Department of Health has identified the key overarching health and wellbeing issues faced today - healthy eating, physical activity, mental health and emotional wellbeing, alcohol and drugs misuse, and sexual health – and the Steering Group I represent will be providing guidance on how the FE sector can work effectively in these areas.
How can FE colleges address health and wellbeing?
For me, it’s important that colleges take a holistic approach and ensure that initiatives are implemented in all areas of the curriculum when tackling health and wellbeing. Support from Senior Management and identifying a College Manager to drive the initiatives forward can help to ensure things continue to move along and that all departments remain involved and engaged. As the health priorities in a college often reflect the needs of the local area, I would advise doing some research to determine exactly what these issues are and how the college population may be at risk, and this may be more easily done by working in partnership with local Primary Care Trusts (PCT). Although the self-review tool will be beneficial in identifying ways in which colleges can start to tackle their health concerns, I think there are many simple initiatives colleges can start to put in place straight away. At Bradford College for example, we introduced a healthy meals option at the canteen as well as a number of different sports clubs to ensure staff and students have the opportunity to particpate in free physical activity. These initiatives are easy and are usually low or no-cost to implement, but can have a profound impact on the health of staff and students.
How should colleges work with community partners?
It’s so important for colleges to build and maintain close relationships with community partners such as the local PCT, Local Authority and health charities if they are to provide valuable health services for students and staff. These types of organisations often have health targets that are specific to the 14-19 age group so working in partnership with local colleges is almost always mutually beneficial. I’ve found that the Healthy FE Programme has helped to open the communications channels between colleges and the local partner organisations, helping to ease the confusion over who is the right person to speak to, and which department deals with which issue. Nine Regional Healthy FE Networks have been set up to support partnership working between FE colleges, PCTs and Local Authorities. These Networks are being led by the FE sector and are aimed at providing a virtual and face-to-face forum where best practice and information can be shared. I think the Regional Networks will be the building blocks for many FE colleges to engage in partnership programmes with external providers and will provide a forum where peer reviews can be used to benchmark and measure the performance of health and wellbeing initiatives.
The ways in which FE colleges can work with community partners to improve their provision of health and wellbeing services is varied, and one of the benefits of the Regional Networks is that colleges can talk directly to other colleges about what they’re doing. At Bradford College for example, we work closely with the local PCT to provide sexual health information and free chlamydia screenings and we are currently working in collaboration with Professor Paul Gately from
I strongly believe that it’s absolutely critical that all FE colleges provide a healthy and safe environment to work and learn in, where staff and students can make the most of the opportunities presented to them. Colleges are already doing a significant amount of work in this area and Healthy FE is about supporting them, helping to enhance the fantastic work that is already underway. The 16-19 age group can be notoriously difficult to reach and at this age are often setting behavoural habits that will stick with them for life. We, the sector, are key when it comes to providing them with sufficient support networks and the information they need to make informed decisions and lifestyle choices. For me, identifying the main health and wellbeing issues is the first step for all FE colleges to take, before working closely with community partners to come up with the appropriate solutions and initiatives.
For more information on Healthy FE, visit www.excellencegateway.org.uk/hfep