Exploring the role of education in supporting the development of children’s health capabilities: a study of food education in schools in england

Hart, Caroline Sarojini (2018). 'Exploring the role of education in supporting the development of children’s health capabilities: A study of food education in schools in England' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This paper introduces a model for researching human behaviour, drawing on key concepts from both the capability approach and Susan Michie’s COM-B model of behaviour change.  We apply conceptual and theoretical insights specifically to examine the role of food education in schools in England and the social contexts in which food practices occur.  In England nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese[i].  In response to a growing government concern with UK childhood obesity prevalence, recent UK policy has focused on promoting healthy food and drink consumption behaviours in children. For example, new school food standards have been developed, and a government-commissioned ‘School Food Plan’ has been launched leading to ‘cooking and nutrition’ lessons being introduced in the English National Curriculum for 5-14 year olds in 2014.  


Using a capability-informed lens, this research looks beyond education policy and curriculum reform to understand the school-related factors that help and hinder children in developing their health capabilities.  The capability approach helps us to consider not only what resources might be required to enable health, but crucially, what conditions are necessary, minimal or optimal, to afford people the freedom to lead healthier lives.  Thus we report on the roles that schools potentially have, not only in the provision of adequate education and other resources, but also in the development of wider conditions to support children’s health capabilities.


Thus we explored the relative opportunities children had to develop knowledge, skills and dispositions that could support their health and well-being as well as the extent to which school environments, practices and cultures supported the possibility of converting resources, for instance, education, money and school food, into health sustaining behaviours. The research undertaken took place from 2016-2017, involving qualitative work with 240 pupils in primary and secondary education and surveys of around 2000 teachers and school leaders and 600 parents across England. The findings raise practical and moral questions about the role of governments and schools in supporting children’s health capabilities.


Although this study is limited to the context of school education in England, the research framework and findings have relevance for wider contexts, especially in terms of understanding the rationale for action to secure the freedom for health and not only the provision of resources.

[i] Gov.uk (2016) Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action accessed at www.gov.uk

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