School reform, neo-liberalism and public health in North American schools

Year: 2012

Author: Gard, Michael, Schee, Carolyn Vander

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This presentation emerges from a broader research project into the past, present and future of the connections between schools and public health policy.

In the first part of this presentation we trace the birth and growth of the field of public health and its forays into American schools in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This history shows that the desire to use schools to control quite directly the behaviour of citizens has been present from the beginning. This can be seen in the early temperance and social hygiene movements that sought not to develop understanding amongst children but rather to insist on certain forms of conduct. Thus, in many ways the more recent pre-occupations of public health with obesity and mental health can be seen as manifestations of this tradition. Put simply, public health's agenda is that children should do and think certain things to be healthy and schools should play a role in bring these things about.

Second, much of the most recent public health policy directed at American schools can be located within a broader neo-liberal agenda to make schools responsible and accountable for specific policy goals. However, rather than there being any prospect of schools being able to rise to these challenges, public health policy is opening up a wide range of commercial opportunities. We consider two specific and particularly instructive examples in this presentation; the collection and publication of fitness test data for children in a number of states and the emergence of policies that encourage or require teachers to commit to certain lifestyle choices or goals. While it is unclear how these policies will lead to healthier and happier citizens, they both hasten the process of turning schools into, first and foremost, units of economic activity rather than places of learning.

To conclude, we note that some scholars have welcomed a renewed public health focus on body weight and health as a vehicle for re-invigorating physical education. This research suggests that the opposite may be true; that in signing up to the war on obesity, a war schools are in no position wage much less win, the logic for taking physical activity out of the hands of school teachers and into the hands of entrepreneurs will become increasingly impossible to resist.