This study sought to understand the current challenges mainstream secondary schools in England face in creating a health promoting school culture for diet and physical activity behaviours. An in-depth qualitative case study of two purposely selected state-funded schools, including interviews with teachers, observations of school activities including meal breaks and a qualitative survey with parents was done. Inductive thematic analysis was used to explore emerging themes. Additional interviews with the leadership team from four further schools were used to develop and refine emerging themes. Four main themes emerged from the data: competing pressures, school environment, personnel and policy. Results demonstrate that schools recognize they have role to play in promoting healthy lifestyle behaviours to pupils; however, several significant barriers were identified such as lack of government support and regulation, school structures and organization, focus on core subjects, business-run canteens and lack of family and community engagement. Given the importance of maintaining a healthy weight throughout the life course, schools have an important role to play in creating healthy environments in which students can easily make a healthy choice. Future school promotion initiatives need to consider addressing the barriers that schools face by working with them and the communities in which they are embedded.

There has been little research done in secondary schools to understand how to promote healthy lifestyle behaviours to adolescents (secondary schools provide secondary education for students aged 11–18 years). COVID-19 has brought the importance of maintaining a healthy weight back into sharp focus and schools are an ideal setting to educate and support young people in making healthy diet and activity choices. This research sought to understand how important school staff thought creating a health-promoting culture in schools was, how they could create such a culture and what support they had or needed to do so. From interviews with school staff, observing school activities and a questionnaire to parents, we found that schools and parents believe that schools have a role to play in supporting healthy diet and physical activity behaviours although they identified many pressures that prevent making health promotion a priority; these include time and resources as well as a lack of government policy. The importance of having a head teacher with a belief in the benefits of a healthy lifestyle was recognized. The way secondary schools are structured in England makes a joined-up approach difficult and requires central planning and coordination. More support, including resources and policy commitments, are needed to support secondary schools to create a healthy school environment.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact [email protected]