Health and education: A symbiotic relationship

By Nathan Fioritti, University of Melbourne

‘Happy, healthy and resilient students learn better, stay in school longer, and achieve more.’

At the launch of the Doctors in Secondary Schools initiative, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews echoed what the evidence tells us. Health and education are inextricably linked.

The Victorian Government, the first to make a commitment of this kind, is developing and funding two new programs that integrate health care delivery within schools.

Both initiatives – Doctors in Secondary Schools and Glasses for Kids – have been developed in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and are based on the success of similar local and international programs.

Efforts to improve health outcomes for young people are crucial, given that in Australia adolescents access health care less than any other age group.

The plan is to give young people, especially those most in need, the health support, advice, and treatment they need in order to reach their full potential.

GIVING STUDENTS ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE

‘Health is inextricably linked with learning outcomes.’

Associate Professor Lena Sanci, expert advisor for Doctors in Secondary Schools, says that if young people are not able to access health care or suffer from undiagnosed health issues, this can have an impact on their performance at school.

Trouble with hearing, attention deficits, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and mental health concerns all contribute to this.

With a commitment of $43.8 million from the State Government, the project will integrate GPs into secondary schools in Victoria, where they will operate from onsite clinical facilities with the support of a practice nurse and lead teacher in each school.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with Education Minister James Merlino at Mt Alexander College for the announcement of schools

The project will also provide students with the skills required to access health care when school is over.

Sanci said this initiative also serves as a way to better engage with students, especially those who are disadvantaged.

‘Once a young person loses connection with mainstream services like education, it puts them at greater risk of things like homelessness, offending, and suicide.’

The Doctors in Secondary Schools pilot will run in 100 schools over the next few years, selected by the State Government using the same criteria to assess disadvantage as well as expression of interest submissions.

VISION FOR THE FUTURE

Another important health issue contributing to education is vision. If students cannot see clearly or comfortably it makes it difficult to concentrate at school, often leading to poor results and bad behaviour.

The Glasses for Kids program, launched at the UMeyecare Clinic, involves eye screening for 30,000 students in primary schools in Victoria. If required, students will also be provided with glasses at no charge.

Premier Andrews and Minister Merlino at the Glasses for Kids program launch

The partnership with the University means that final-year optometry students will be conducting supervised vision testing at 160 of the schools involved.

Associate Professor Daryl Guest said his students were excited to be involved in a major public health initiative and in helping students with undiagnosed vision problems.

Guest said that ‘for many of these kids, simply prescribing glasses has completely transformed their experience of school, improving their concentration and behaviour.

‘We need early screening because kids of this age won’t tell you, ‘I can’t see the blackboard’ – they’ll just disengage from learning and fall behind.’

Following a trial in 24 schools across Gippsland and Melbourne, the program will be expanded to 250 schools.

TOWARDS A MORE EQUITABLE AUSTRALIA

These initiatives to build a more equitable future through better health and education make Victoria a potential driver of progress in this space. Due to these efforts, other states, if they have not already, might be encouraged to follow by matching these commitments or adopting similar initiatives.

Melbourne is already lending a hand in guiding a comparable health and education initiative in New South Wales through the Centre for Program Evaluation (CPE).

In collaboration with University partner the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), CPE is evaluating a literacy skills program for the NSW Government and Evidence for Learning.

The program, called MiniLit, combines national expertise from health and education, using the most effective testing methods from both disciplines, to achieve the best literacy outcomes for early primary school students who need help in this area.

According to MCRI, this is ‘the first time in Australia that an independent randomised controlled trial has tested a program that teaches key reading elements such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension’.

A trial of the program will run throughout this year in over 20 public schools in NSW.

Dr Jon Quach, said the trial will determine whether an intervention might provide better outcomes for students than the current approach the program takes.

‘This comparison will guide schools as to what interventions may lead to the best student outcomes.’