While New Zealand primary school students are benefiting from improved sun protection efforts over recent years, our schools still lag behind those of Australia in the ‘sun smart’ stakes, according to latest University of Otago research.
Newly published analysis of results from a 2009 survey of 388 randomly selected schools around the country found that only 4% met all 12 criteria in the New Zealand SunSmart Schools Accreditation Programme (SSAP), whereas 52% of Australian schools surveyed in 2005 had attained that country’s equivalent accreditation.
The study, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal, was led by Associate Professor Tony Reeder, Director of the University’s Cancer Society Social & Behavioural Research Unit.
The 12 criteria for SunSmart accreditation relate to school policy, information provision, hats, other clothing, ‘play in the shade’, sunscreen, staff role modelling, curriculum content, event planning, outdoor activities rescheduling, shade provision and policy review.
The study authors found that around one-third of the schools surveyed met 10 or 11 of the 12 criteria, while one-sixth achieved half or less of them.
Associate Professor Reeder says the results indicate that progress is being made towards making New Zealand primary schools more sun smart, but there is still considerable room for improvement.
“For example, only 58% of our schools reported having a written sun protection policy, while 80% of Australian schools had such a policy in 2005. We also found that sun-protective clothing, curriculum delivery and environmental shade emerged as the areas that schools were struggling with the most.”
Only 42% of schools met the requirements for encouraging the use of protective clothing, such as long-sleeved and collared shirts. One response could be to work with suppliers, where necessary, to ensure that attractive, comfortable, suitably protective and affordable clothing products are readily available, he says.
Ensuring that schools are able to provide sufficient shade through trees or purpose built structures was another area of concern, with barely half (54%) of the schools surveyed having sufficient shade or working to increase such shade within the next 12 months.
“This can be challenging for schools as providing adequate shade can be costly and requires professional guidance to make sure that it is placed to give optimal cover during the required times. Considerable improvement would probably be achieved though, if shade were stipulated for consideration in all school building plans,” he says.
As only 54% of schools met the requirements for providing extended sun protection sessions at all levels of the curriculum, many children were probably being left less than fully informed about why avoiding harmful UV radiation exposure is important both in and outside of school, he says.
“Existing teaching resources in this area deserve greater promotion and the development of further suitable resources should also be a priority.”
Associate Professor Reeder noted that sun exposure in the early years of life is a major factor in influencing a person’s lifetime risk of melanoma, the type of skin cancer most likely to be fatal.
“Students are at school when UV radiation levels are at their peak, so it is vital to encourage comprehensive sun protection that encompasses school policies, practices and environment, as well as the curriculum.”