Claire Mulrenan works for the London Borough of Waltham Forest as a public health strategist with a focus on health in schools. We follow a typical day in her working life.
8.30am – First meeting of the day
My first stop is a primary school in Leyton for a meeting with the headteacher. The school wants support with Healthy Schools London, an accredited programme led by the Greater London Authority (GLA) that supports schools to promote the health and wellbeing of pupils, staff and parents. This is one of the main projects I lead on and I’m happy to help.
The school have nearly completed their bronze award, but have a few questions about health policies on physical activity and sex and relationship education. They’re keen to start planning their silver award and want to set up the Daily Mile, a programme that involves pupils running or walking for fifteen minutes each day. We talk about how other schools have overcome challenges around timetabling and limited playground space.
9.10am – Worries about obesity
The headteacher talks about the worries they have around increasing obesity among pupils, and the challenges they face in raising this with families. Waltham Forest has high rates of childhood obesity so this is a theme that runs across a lot of the work I do. By the time pupils reach year six, 40% are classified as either overweight or obese – that’s higher than both London and England averages. As well as long term health implications, this can have a huge impact on sleep, self-esteem, bone and muscle health etc, all of which will have a negative impact on pupil wellbeing and happiness.
Schools are at the front line in dealing with this and parents often turn to them for advice. I see it as my responsibility to upskill and support staff so they are confident in giving the right health messages, and can signpost to services and resources. A number of our schools want to deliver parent information sessions, and I make a note to pick this up when I get a spare moment.
10am – On my way to the next school
I get away on time for my next meeting in another primary school nearby. I travel out to schools as much as I can – school staff time is incredibly stretched. Health and wellbeing can often slip down the priority list, so I see it as my responsibility to remove barriers where I can. However, I have to balance this against efficient use of my time as it can take a while to travel around the borough. The local council has pool bikes so in nice weather I try to cycle.
10.15am – Greeted by the assistant headteacher
It’s nice to get a sense of the school, and I get a quick tour when I arrive. This school has done some incredible work around conflict resolution and play, and they’ve been invited to present at this year’s Healthy Schools London celebration event at City Hall. I’ve agreed to run through their presentation and offer feedback before they send it off to the GLA. They’ve done a fantastic job. As I tend to work with staff in a consultancy capacity, I can feel slightly removed from the impact. So it’s always great to hear that a project you’ve worked on has changed the culture of a school and meant healthier, happier pupils.
I’m in awe of the amount of fantastic work like this going on across the borough, in spite of the squeeze on school funding. One school has installed a biodome so they can grow food all year round. Many schools have bought in the Place2be (in-school counselling service for pupils and staff), others run cookery lessons for parents and pupils after school, some run parenting courses, others run breakfast clubs to support vulnerable pupils. Behind all of this work there are amazing, passionate staff who dedicate incredible amounts of time and energy to get these projects off the ground.
We catch up on a couple of other things. This school is also part of the Food for Life School awards programme I run, and want some support around improving food quality and the dining experience. They’ve done some brilliant work already – such as buying simple table cloths for the dining room, playing ambient music and letting each class design a table centrepiece. According to the School Food Plan, only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food, so anything that schools can do to improve the dining experience and encourage transition from packed lunches to school meals is good for their pupils’ health.
11.30am – No bike with me today, so I jump on a bus back to the Town Hall
This week has been quite hectic, so bringing lunch in has gone out of the window. Instead, I pop into a deli on my way back to the office. I usually try and get out if I can, even if it’s just for a quick ten minute walk (to practise what we preach!), but as I’ve been out all morning I head back.
12.15pm – Quick catch up on emails at my desk
It can be a challenge keeping on top of emails when I’m out a lot. A couple of things need an urgent response. We’re running training for our Youth Health Champions (peer educators) next week and one of our schools needs support with recruitment. I manage to send some thoughts before setting off for my next meeting.
2pm – Reducing air pollution outside schools
I meet with the Air Quality Officer at the council to discuss how we can work together to reduce pollution levels outside schools. This is an area of health that’s gaining increasing publicity in London, with air pollution contributing to poor health outcomes for children. The council has already done some work around stopping cars from idling and generating fumes outside school gates and we discuss how we can build on this.
Responsibility for public health moved back into the local authority in 2013 and our team has worked hard to develop good working relationships across the council. With dwindling resources it’s important we work together to maximise impact, and ensure that all staff see health as part of their key responsibility for residents.
3pm – An action plan for relationship and sex education
My last stop is a meeting at a local secondary school to discuss how we can contribute to the upcoming relationship and sex education consultation, as well as starting to develop a framework for Waltham Forest secondary schools. There are a large number of people at the meeting, including secondary representatives, school nursing, and organisations such as Stonewall and Diversity Role Models. Earlier this year the government announced plans to make sex education compulsory in all schools from September 2018, and we’re keen to look at how we can prepare our schools for this, as well as influence the final guidance to ensure it is LGBT inclusive and comprehensive.
The meeting is extremely productive. We review the current policy statement, work in groups to come up with the key principles and content we feel should be included, and put together an action plan for the next six months.
5pm - I head home
I live in southwest London so it can take me a while to get back home. I might read a report or review a Healthy Schools application on my way home if something needs responding to, but otherwise I’ll read a book or listen to a podcast to switch off at the end of the day.
Claire Mulrenan participated in A Mile in my shoes. Listen to Claire’s story.