Mental Health: What Wales’ Further Education sector can learn from Slovenia

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Catherine Lewis, NPTC Group of Colleges Principal, reflects on a recent visit to Slovenia and what Wales could take from the nation’s emphasis on active wellbeing. 

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place between 13 – 19 May 2024. This year’s theme is Movement: Moving more for our mental health. Our further education colleges are instrumental in promoting the value of active wellbeing amongst both learners and staff, which in turn, supports good mental health.  

A cohort of Further Education College staff were lucky enough to visit Slovenia, one of the most active nations in Europe, in April 2024, supported by Taith funding. The staff members in question were part of the ColegauCymru Active Wellbeing Strategic Group, representing FE colleges from across Wales as well as strategic partners such as Sport Wales, Street Games and the National sporting governing bodies. The Group were able to visit several key strategic projects in Slovenia, to understand how they get their nation moving; and experience the benefits movement brings to the country at large and how this can be implemented in Wales. 

Since the 1970s, Slovenia has promoted regular activity among its population, resulting in healthier and more economically active adults. This ethos has supported its growth over recent decades. Young people aged 6 to 19 undergo mandatory national annual fitness testing. The SLOfit[1] programme is a unique national surveillance system monitoring the healthy physical development of children and youth since 1987. Now in its second generation, young people aged 6 to 19 undergo mandatory national annual fitness testing, the data from which is used to inform public policy and national health and education strategies. Those tests, supported by dedicated PE lessons from primary age, have resulted in a culture of physical activity that is taken into adulthood. This policy has built a solid baseline of active wellbeing in the population, with a positive impact on general mental ​​health[2]

What could this mean for Wales? 

The Slovenian model has resonance for the FE sector in Wales. The link between active wellbeing and good mental health is widely recognised and acknowledged by this key education sector, having ​​over 45,000[3] and 6,500[4] staff, ​​it reaches into the homes and hearts of so many of us. With support from Welsh Government and Sport Wales, the ColegauCymru Active Wellbeing Strategy has promoted physical, mental and emotional wellbeing through increased access to physical activity since 2014 across FE colleges. 

Previous research carried out by the Sport Wales Further Education Survey 2018[5] shows that there is a significant drop in activity levels at the age of 14 which increases at 16, particularly for young women and ​​girls who cite a lack of confidence as a barrier to activity.[6] 

Within the FE sector, it is estimated that over 30% of female learners do not engage with any physical activity upon entering post-16 – over 8,000 learners. When all genders are considered, this figure is likely to be over 12,000. The Active Wellbeing project works across 11 FE colleges to tackle this inequality and currently reaches 5,000-6,000 learners every year, with a focus on the less active, including Independent Learning Skills (ILS) learners, 14-16 programmes and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) as well as young female learners. 

This important programme sees young people engage in new activities each year. Sport Wales and Welsh Government grant funding for mental health in FE has provided colleges with the opportunity to develop ​​new projects and support existing ones, such as the WG Winter of Wellbeing programme where a package of wellbeing support was delivered for children and young people across Wales between October 2021 and March 2022, to help learners recover from the negative effects of the Covid19 pandemic. Work in this space has included creating new staff roles and a bespoke offer for many of our colleges.  
Volunteering and peer-led activity is often a very effective way to engage young people who may not enjoy more traditional PE and sport. A great example of this kind of activity can be found at my own College, NPTC Group of Colleges. At our Llandarcy campus, we have set up a Young Ambassadors Programme, which encourages teams of students to develop new sports and physical activities for fellow learners.  

Challenges Remain 

Despite clear progress, challenges however remain in providing a sustainable model for active wellbeing in the FE Sector. FE has a huge social value in our society[7] and can support the key pillars of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.  

ColegauCymru has identified three priorities for future development: supporting colleges in developing programmes that enhance a better understanding of the benefits of activity on wellbeing, and tacking inequalities and providing fair opportunity for all learners to engage in physical activity which in turn could support them to become valuable citizens. These priorities will link with wider initiatives that support the integration of active wellbeing across all aspects of the further education journey. Developing collaborative micro-projects between colleges and partner organisations that increase the opportunities available will help to achieve this. 

To do all of this, we need further analysis of successful models of active wellbeing, such as Slovenia. The structures they have put in place, which include supportive funding and community engagement, take time to set up. The results of this approach are measured in decades rather than months.  

Wales has a strong history of community sports clubs such as netball, rugby, and football – to name just a few – with a strong volunteering workforce. However, we need to see more emphasis on active wellbeing and its positive effects for good mental health in the education sector before it can truly become a way of life. Slovenian youngsters currently have 5 hours a week dedicated to sports in their timetables, fostering a culture of participation. In a time of competing factors for funds, a fresh look is needed as to how we in further education can help to support a healthier nation. 

About Catherine Lewis 

Catherine Lewis is the Principal of NPTC Group of Colleges. She has 12 years' experience leading as a Vice Principal of Corporate Services, and a further 22 years as an advisor to the education sector in the UK. Catherine is responsible for the delivery of the Group strategy; commercial strategy; legal counsel; data controller; global business development and estates.  

Catherine qualified as a Solicitor in 1994, specialising in employment law and HR, working for Morgan Cole (Blake Morgan) and Eversheds Sutherland as a Principal Associate. Catherine is dual qualified in HR and is a Fellow of the CIPD.  

Catherine is also Chair of Wales Netball; Chair of Europe Netball; a World Netball Nominations Committee Member; and was a panel member for Netball Appeals at the Commonwealth Games 2022. 


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