Open Forum

Should teachers have a duty under public health guidance to tell parents if their children are unhealthy, asks Richard Berry

Caroline Flint, the public health minister, has welcomed the fact that the public health agenda is extending beyond the health services and into, in particular, education and housing services. And while we should all welcome the extension, the move raises a set of controversial issues, concerning just who has the right to comment on our health.

The front line of this will be in schools, where staff may be expected to take more responsibility for pupil’s health. Is this right? For example, should teachers tell parents if they think that their children are obese?

I don’t think we can possibly ask teachers to do this. Teachers are aware of the duty of care they have to pupils, and many will want to give general advice about health or safety where appropriate.

But to make this a requirement, handed down from policy-makers, would be misguided. Teachers are employed to teach, and it would break the relationship of trust teachers and pupils are meant to enjoy if they were forced to interfere with the child’s lifestyle.

Of course, some teachers will “interfere” anyway, but we should leave it to them to decide whether this is the right thing to do in any given situation. Nobody would suggest asking the local shopkeeper or manager of the local fast food joint to dispense health advice to kids.

Arguably they have a more direct involvement with a child’s diet than their teacher does – so why burden the teacher with a duty that would only make their primary educational task more difficult?

This doesn’t mean that nobody but health professionals can have a formal role in public health. For example, I’d love to see every local education authority or even every school with its own Jamie Oliver-style champion – someone active in the community who can promote good food and put the right advice systems in place for all parents.

But for now let’s let teachers be teachers.

Richard Berry is a health and social care policy officer

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