The opening of a new retail outlet, half a mile from my former school, saw customers snaking round the building and a week of road chaos as motorists queued for up to an hour.
This was no fashion store or a supermarket but a Krispy Kreme drive-thru doughnut store. No surprise then that Scotland has the developed world’s second highest (after the USA) obesity rates.
Health and wellbeing is high on Scotland’s educational agenda, yet our poor health is beyond a quick curricular fix.
Phil Hanlon, professor of public health at Glasgow University, and Sandra Carlisle, have painted the bigger picture of Scotland’s health. After Now: What next for a healthy Scotland? (Argyll Publishing) is the second in Postcards from Scotland, challenging short books analysing big social issues.
In a world obsessed by possessions and status, poor physical and mental health is a function of society’s “wealth” rather than its poverty, although the poor health of the poor remains its powerful apotheosis.
Despite seeming affluence, unhappiness is the norm. In Scotland prescriptions for anti-depressants have risen over 20 years from one million per year to four million.
One of the most startling deteriorations is that immediately after the Second World War, the average Scottish family spent 40 per cent of its income on food; today it spends less than 10 per cent but what it buys is pre-packaged and considerably less healthy.
We live longer but the age of onset of poor function may well remain the same thanks to smoking and diet: simply an extended morbidity.
Schools cannot escape the problem. When compared with 20 other OECD countries, many substantially poorer, the UK was bottom of the child wellbeing league table. British parents spend less outdoor and creative recreational time with their children but far more cash on consumer goods, creating the bedrooms stacked with untold boxes of broken and abandoned toys. Education itself becomes a consumer product and schools are weighed, measured and judged by status-conscious parents.
Lessons in health and wellbeing are not the answer although I recall with delight the best such lesson I ever saw. A principal teacher was explaining to an assembly the value of drinking water. A hard task but done superbly: “You can tell easily,” he said, “whether you’ve drunk enough water. If you have, your pee is very pale; if you haven’t, it’s dark yellow.” A magnificent attention-grabbing start to engaging with young people on their terms, he hit home and made sense.
If we are seriously committed to improving the health and wellbeing of our young people, we need to challenge the consumerist ethos that dominates our world, but in schools here are a few starters we could try.
Teachers could sit with students at lunchtime, making eating a social event where adults and young people relate.
We could turn part of our school grounds into an allotment and engage students in the growing of food for use in school.
We could co-operate with our medical colleagues to reduce the drugging of children, whether for ADHD or other behavioural issues, and seek to challenge the problem rather than mask it.
We could scrap any trips or excursions costing more than £5 for a day or £50 a week.
We could desist from judging each other by such currency as exam passes or university places achieved.
Every teacher can imagine at least five ways to make our schools centres of health, wellbeing, real relationships and social justice. Next, we should put these local ideals into practice. Then we should ask ourselves the really challenging question: how to make such local ideals a more universal reality.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.