Training in nutrition advice for teenagers is to be provided to school nurses at NHS trusts across the country from March, after it was found staff were too time-stretched and ill-equipped to deliver healthy eating information.
The free scheme, being run by Northumbria University and the School and Public Health Nurses Association, has been set up as part of a Burdett Trust charity-funded programme to reduce maternal obesity through support to future parents.
“The majority of school nurses hadn’t had specific, formal training around nutritional health for this age group”
Figures from Public Health England show 19% women of a childbearing age – between 16 and 44 years old in England – were obese in 2013, which had increased from 12% in 1993.
Those behind the training programme said secondary school children were more susceptible to changing their behaviours than adults due to their ongoing neurological development at this time.
But when school nurses were asked what was needed to improve nutritional training for adolescents, they highlighted a number of problems.
A national survey of more than 750 school nurses in 2016 found they did not have the time to deliver advice and support about nutritional health, according to academics at Northumbria University, which carried out the work.
The nurses also said they lacked both nutritional knowledge – such as information on portion sizes and calorie intake – and skills adapted to the behaviours specific to this age group.
Similarly, after reviewing existing research and speaking to young people, the researchers found secondary schools provided only limited education on healthy eating, and that teenagers did not know where they could get advice from.
“The majority of school nurses hadn’t had specific, formal training around nutritional health for this age group,” said Victoria Gilroy, senior lecturer in specialist community public health nursing at Northumbria University.
“[School nurses] felt…their services were currently reactive, and not focussed on a preventative public health role”
“They felt it was a part of their role, but their services were currently reactive, and not focussed on a preventative public health role,” she said.
Many also had not worked with teenagers very often, due to time constraints, which made it harder for them understand the best way to support this age group, said Ms Gilroy.
Ms Gilroy noted that she did not find the results of the survey surprising because, although school nurses would have received a basic level of nutritional education, specific training was known to be limited, as it was difficult for employers to release nurses from practice.
The training programme being launched in March will help to address the gaps in school nurses’ knowledge and skills, she said.
“It’s essential for staff to have the skills and knowledge to support the young people they are working with. We want to support them to be able to do that and to be able to signpost on confidently at the right time if we’re going to make a difference as public health professionals,” she said.
Sharon White, professional officer at SAPHNA, said: ”The school nursing workforce is pivotal in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic. As the unique link between home and school, they are ideally placed to utilise this training alongside their expert public health skills to make a real difference.”
The one-day event will include a film of young people’s views on nutritional health, will teach school nurses how to become champions of healthy eating, and also how to deliver the training to other colleagues. It will also feature the use of an app to support nutritional advice.
Following a pilot that took place month, the programme will be rolled out at four national events, with the aim of training two school nurses for every NHS provider organisation in England by the autumn.