Health and education are strongly connected: healthy children achieve better results at school, which in turn are associated with improved health later in life. This relationship between health and education forms the basis of the World Health Organization's (WHO’s) Health Promoting Schools (HPS) framework, an approach to promoting health in schools that addresses the whole school environment. Although the HPS framework is used in many schools, we currently do not know if it is effective. This review aimed to assess whether the HPS framework can improve students’ health and well-being and their performance at school.
We searched 20 health, education, and social science databases, as well as trials registries and relevant websites, for cluster-randomised controlled trials of school-based interventions aiming to improve the health of young people aged four to 18 years. We only included trials of programmes that addressed all three points in the HPS framework: including health education in the curriculum; changing the school’s social or physical environment, or both; and involving students’ families or the local community, or both.
We found 67 trials, comprising 1345 schools and 98 districts, that fulfilled our criteria. These focused on a wide range of health topics, including physical activity, nutrition, substance use (tobacco, alcohol, and drugs), bullying, violence, mental health, sexual health, hand-washing, cycle-helmet use, sun protection, eating disorders, and oral health. For each study, two review authors independently extracted relevant data and assessed the risk of the study being biased. We grouped together studies according to the health topic(s) they focused on.
We found that interventions using the HPS approach were able to reduce students’ body mass index (BMI), increase physical activity and fitness levels, improve fruit and vegetable consumption, decrease cigarette use, and reduce reports of being bullied. However, we found little evidence of an effect on BMI when age and gender were taken into account (zBMI), and no evidence of effectiveness on fat intake, alcohol and drug use, mental health, violence, and bullying others. We did not have enough data to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the HPS approach for sexual health, hand-washing, cycle-helmet use, eating disorders, sun protection, oral health or academic outcomes. Few studies discussed whether the health promotion activities, or the collection of data relating to these, could have caused any harm to the students involved.
Quality of the evidence
Overall, the quality of evidence was low to moderate. We identified some problems with the way studies were conducted, which may have introduced bias, including many studies relying on students’ accounts of their own behaviours (rather than these being measured objectively) and high numbers of students dropping out of studies. These problems, and the small number of studies included in our analysis, limit our ability to draw clear conclusions about the effectiveness of the HPS framework in general.
Overall, we found some evidence to suggest the HPS approach can produce improvements in certain areas of health, but there are not enough data to draw conclusions about its effectiveness for others. We need more studies to find out if this approach can improve other aspects of health and how students perform at school.