Saturday, May 12, 2012

Getting More than our Fingers Burnt: Choosing a Secondary School with Your Child's Health at Heart

Across Victoria during Autumn children entering secondary school in 2013 will tour prospective schools with their parents, yet there will be few enquires about school ‘sun smart’ policy. After years of diligence in kindergartens and primary school, such questions slip off the parental radar, despite the fact around 80% of all Victorian secondary schools do not have a comprehensive policy.

Few parents would fail to be outraged if schools allowed students to smoke because of known health risks, yet the odds of Australian children developing skin cancer are considerably higher. Australia is the skin-cancer capital of the world. Half the population are expected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime, with around 1 000 people treated for the disease each day, and 1 600 dying each year. But research suggests as many as 75% of all skin cancers could be prevented by practicing sun protection in childhood and adolescence.

Parents Australia wants the issue taken far more seriously, and advocates parental involvement.  Vice-President, Margaret Pledger, says some schools appear more concerned about developing a “private school image”, than facing up to their duty-of-care to students. Mrs Pledger, who recently had moles removed from her hands, believes it is highly likely her own secondary-aged children will develop skin cancer, but they refuse to wear hats at school because no-one else does. “It is completely frustrating, but there is nothing I can do about it,” she says.

SunSmart’s Secondary School Sun Protection Program assists secondary schools to implement an effective sun protection policy, offering a graduated approach with consideration of the particular challenges of adolescent sun protection behaviours. State-wide only 56 secondary schools have joined the program to date, with the majority located in rural and regional Victoria.  

Parents cannot assume because a hat appears on the uniform list it will actually be used. While many schools profess baseball caps mandatory for physical education classes in terms one and four, they seem unwilling or unable to enforce their use. Every year at Dobsons, uniform supplier to more than 50 Victorian schools, hats are sold to Year 7 students. “We give all the Year 7s a hat, and when they come back the next year their parents say it sat in the bottom of a wardrobe all year,” says Dobsons floor manager Sally.

Teachers frequently become agitated by the sunhat question because they are keen to minimise confrontational situations, nurturing positive relationships, rather than pulling students up for wearing trousers in the wrong shade of grey. In an attempt to by-pass the hat battle, many schools are opting to erect shade structures with some success. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that where shade is provided, students will not avoid it.

Research suggests that improved sun-protection practices are more effective where whole communities work consistently together to find a solution. In 2007 an American Academy of Paediatrics study on adolescent sun-protection practices demonstrated the power of role modelling. After observing the sun protection level of 1 927 people in Year 6 to 8 at school, staff, sports coaches, lifeguards and adolescent peers were enlisted as advocates for better sun protection behaviours. After two years, the group was more likely to cover-up a greater percentage of their skin, when compared with a control group, and were more likely to use sunscreen, and to apply it more effectively.

At Kyabram Secondary College in Victoria’s north, the risk of skin cancer is also taken seriously, with expectations about wide-brimmed sunhats uppermost in the uniform policy guidelines. Physical Education coordinator Marcus Cummins says while the school’s record with sunscreen needs work, it is serious about hats. But it takes a great deal of energy to maintain the standard.

At Kyabram, the emphasis is on re-education, not punishment. Students who consistently fail to wear a hat are enlisted in an education campaign over 3-4 days watching DVDs about skin cancer, completing worksheets on the identification of different forms of skin cancer, and working out how they are going to get a wide-brimmed hat for school.

Aquinas College in Melbourne’s east tried unsuccessfully for a decade to get students to wear hats, before adopting a less punitive approach. Students were told hats would be mandatory, but were actively involved in the decision about style and colour. These days students wear a SunSmart approved Billabong hat in sage green, which bears no school logo, making it more acceptable to students. Aquinas students can sit in the shade without wearing the hat, but they must have it with them at all times.

After four years students and staff have mostly accepted the changes, but it would have been virtually impossible without support from the principal and staff. “It’s a really tough thing to do, but we have made huge headway,” says Health and Welfare Coordinator Cheryl Kane who has sun protection included in her job description. But “unless you have someone who is prepared to continually bang their head against the wall, it’s just too hard,” she says.

Aquinas students are philosophical about their school hat. “Wearing hats is ok, we don’t love it but it’s not a huge deal anymore,” said a Year 11 girl. “It’s really just for our own good,” said a Year 9 boy, and there is “no point teaching it in class if you don’t make us actually do it,” pointed out a Year 8 boy. “I don’t really care too much so am pretty happy to wear a hat. It’s pretty much for our own good – you don’t have to let the teachers know you like it – LOL.”

When asked why they thought Aquinas had introduced a sunhat policy, students said: “Because we live in Australia, and there is so much skin cancer...It’s a huge problem.”  Another student wrote, “I think the school wants us to know how to look after ourselves.” And another thought the school had hats “because it’s the right thing for the school to do.”

Because schools are influenced by the values of their local communities, perhaps it should come as no surprise Victoria’s sun protection record is the worst in the country. After 28 years of skin cancer campaigns, the sight of hundreds of hatless students dawdling home from school in 35 degree heat might well have elicited complaints from a concerned local community. But according to a Cancer Council report, of all Australians, Victorians are the least likely to wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen, with 25% of adolescents and 14% of adults getting sunburnt on a typical summer weekend.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation is summed up in the words of one parent who said, “When people start to sue schools because they’ve got skin cancer, we’ll probably wish we’d made hats compulsory, instead of teaching them how to tie a Windsor knot!”

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