Health

School sun care policy 'must change'

woman applying suncream to child
Image caption Who should be responsible for making sure a child is protected?

Should schools be insisting that teachers and dinner-ladies supervise the application of sunscreen on pupils before they go out to play? Similar policies are in place in nurseries and pre-schools, but there is often no such provision in primary and secondary schools, despite good evidence that sunburn in childhood can lead to skin cancer in later life.

We all need a little bit of sunshine in our lives. It not only boosts our wellbeing but also helps our body to make vitamin D.

But too much sun is damaging, and children are particularly vulnerable to over-exposure.

For example, more than 80% of exposure to the sun occurs during childhood.

Time spent playing outdoors at breaks and lunchtime as well as during sports lessons means children spend, on average, one and a half hours outside during school time.

And a recent survey of 1,000 parents, commissioned by MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Skin, found almost 40% of pupils have suffered sunburn while at school.

Unprotected

Prolonged over-exposure to the sun and episodes of sunburn under the age of 15 are major risk factors for skin cancer in later life.

The British Association of Dermatology estimates that four out of five skin cancer deaths are preventable.

Simple measures like seeking shade, covering up and using sunscreen, can prevent these dangers.

But there is no real onus on schools to provide these basic things.

Guidelines do recommend that schools have a sun policy, but they are not prescriptive or mandatory.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence says children should be encouraged to seek shade whenever possible.

But provision of shade is seemingly disregarded in many UK schools.

And it says sunscreen (of at least SPF 15 strength) should be applied liberally half an hour before and after going out in the sun and reapplied every two hours thereafter.

Lessons from Australia

But how can schools realistically achieve this?

Admittedly teachers cannot be expected to apply sunscreen due to simple time pressures.

There is also the inevitable question regarding their concerns over child abuse and the strong advice they receive from local authority education departments and trade unions.

However, there is no reason whatsoever why they should not supervise the application, perhaps with the assistance of the school nurse or indeed parents who attend on a pre-arranged rota system.

NICE suggests parents could provide sunscreen for their children who could, in turn, be taught how to apply it for themselves. Children could even be encouraged to help their school-friends put theirs on, says NICE.

The guidelines also recommend schools run awareness campaigns to alert children to the harms of too much sun exposure.

In Australia over 75% of schools qualify for Sunsmart status - a code of conduct which even includes making sunglasses part of the school uniform.

Similar support schemes are available to UK schools, but uptake is patchy.

Again, in Australia, sun protection is now an accepted part of the educational programme. But in the UK it is not part of the curriculum.

Instead, it is left to the individual teacher to decide as to whether or not to introduce the subject of UV awareness. This is simply not good enough.

Skin cancer and UV awareness have always been regarded as a public health issue and not educational - the fact is that they are inextricably linked and if only the two government departments would "get together", in the long-term huge health cost savings can be achieved.

The resource for this change which has lain dormant for far too long, is after all, already in place - the school, the classroom and the teacher - applying the subject at the appropriate times to the huge long term benefit of our children.

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