Why schools need to take sun safety more seriously

With spring finally here and warmer weather (hopefully) around the corner, Dr Julie Peconi, Senior Research Officer in Health Data Science at Swansea University, explains why schools need to take sun safety more seriously:

Despite the UK’s rainy climate, there is a one in six risk of developing skin cancer. Children, especially, should take extra care as severe sunburn as a youngster more than doubles the chance of developing skin cancer later on.

But new research my colleagues and I conducted shows that less than half of primary schools in Wales have a formal sun safety policy.

With skin cancer rates continuing to rise by 8% annually in England and Wales, it’s a problem that’s not going away and the disease now accounts for half of all cancers. In 2020 alone, the cost of treating skin cancer in England was estimated to be more than £180 million.

There is hope, though. It is estimated that around 90% of skin cancers are due to ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure from the sun. This means they can be prevented through safer behaviour.

In the UK, though, many people still underestimate the link between sunburn and skin cancer. Research paints a worrying picture, revealing disparities in sun protection awareness and behaviour across different groups. Notably, men, people living in low-income neighbourhoods, those belonging to lower socioeconomic groups and people of colour are often found to be less informed about sun safety and are more likely to put themselves at risk.

With childhood a crucial time for learning healthy behaviour, teaching all children from a young age about sun protection could be one way to reduce future skin cancer rates. And the World Health Organization recommends formal school programmes as the key to prevention.

Overall, school-based interventions have been shown to positively influence sun safe knowledge and behaviour. For example, schools in Australia with written policies show better sun protection practices than those without.

But in UK schools, the situation varies. The UK government’s Department for Education has issued statutory guidance for England that children should leave primary school knowing about sun safety and how to reduce the risk of getting skin cancer.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is not a legal requirement to teach sun safety in schools. And in Wales, while sun safety is recommended as part of the Welsh Network of Healthy Schools scheme, again there is no mandatory requirement to have a sun safety policy or to teach skin cancer prevention. Nor are there central UK resources provided to help schools in this area.

My colleagues and I wanted to know how many schools have a sun safety policy, a formal document that sets out a school’s position with respect to the education and provision of sun safety. We also wanted to understand whether the existence of a policy varied by area or school characteristic, and what support schools need.

In 2022, we sent a survey to all 1,241 primary schools in Wales. In total, 471 schools responded.

What we found

We found that only 39% of responding schools had a formal sun safety policy. And of these, not all enforced them. Schools that had more children receiving free school meals and with lower attendance rates were less likely to have a sun safety policy.

We asked schools that did not have a policy to tell us the reasons why not. Thirty-five per cent of schools were “not aware of the need”, while 27% of schools had “not got around to it just yet”. Thirty schools (13%) said that a sun safety policy was not a priority at this time. Clearly, there is work to be done on raising awareness among schools and school leaders on the role they can play in this area.

Of course, schools are busy places. So, when asked to indicate what would encourage them to create a sun safety policy, 73% of schools said assistance with development, while 56% said resources to aid the teaching of sun safety.

Previously both Cancer Research UK and the Wales-based Tenovus Cancer Care charities have offered support and guidelines for schools but this support is no longer easily available. The England-based charity Sckin has a comprehensive and free sun-safe schools accreditation scheme. Some schools told us they based their policies on resources supplied by the local authority, but this was not consistent across Wales.

UV levels will soon rise in the UK and now is the time for schools to start thinking about sun protection. Having a formal sun safety school policy sets out the position of the school when it comes to sun safety. When enforced and communicated properly, this makes it clear to everyone (governors, teachers, carers and pupils) their individual responsibilities when it comes to staying safe.

But with fewer than half of schools in Wales having formal policies, and not all enforced, awareness of the importance of this issue and the potential role of schools is lacking.

It is therefore time for sun safety policies to become mandatory for primary schools across the UK. This could help to improve knowledge and behaviour for all age groups. But adequate support and guidance must be also given to schools to help them educate children about sun safety and protect them while they are at school.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.