In the news…how to teach cancer

24th February 2016

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This week saw The Guardian publish an article on their teacher network entitled “How to teach…cancer”. We were pleased to see that they urged readers not to be silent on the topic and make an attempt to answer the question, “So how can you raise this difficult topic with your pupils?”. Referencing resources from the likes of Bupa, Breast Cancer Care, Orchid and highlighting the usefulness of films and games relating to cancer, the article offers tools to get the conversation started in the classroom and introduce some of the important information to both primary and secondary students. But as much as this article tries to address the raised question; we think it only begins to scratch the surface.

Through working with teachers, pupils, and trainee student teachers we have realised just how much work needs to be done in order to ensure young people in the UK are receiving adequate cancer education. It is not as simple as solely providing resource for teachers to use. Cancer can often be a difficult topic for many to talk about and teachers are no exception. Our recent work with trainee primary school teachers highlighted just how little confidence our future teachers had with dealing with the topic. Confidence in leading lessons about cancer is something that many trained teachers also struggle with. We often bring personal baggage with us as adults when talking about difficult topics and for those that have been touched by cancer in some way, it can be hard to leave this at the door when approaching the subject. Add into the equation the fear that is often associated with talking about such a topic; it can make it very difficult for teachers even with resource, to know how to start the conversation and continue it without bringing in their own fear, emotion or lack of confidence into the classroom. This is further complicated by the views of the wider school environment and parents who often share different views on how and what should be taught when it comes to subjects often described as “sensitive”.

In addition, the lack of time means that cancer education is often not marked as a priority. Despite the fact that 1 in 2 of us will be affected in our lifetime, cancer education along with PSHE in general doesn’t have a protected place on the national curriculum. The news recently broke that the Government will not be changing this anytime soon so there is still a long way to go until we can be sure that every child is receiving adequate personal, sexual and health education (read more on the Government’s decision here). We understand their is little time in the school day to introduce new lessons, which is why we are currently working with 17 secondary schools in the England to explore how cancer education could be introduced in their current structure. Through our pilot we have seen teachers using form time, art lessons and extra-curricular activities to introduce cancer education. We will be publishing the findings from our pilot in the coming months so keep tuned to find out more about innovative ways to teach cancer.

Finally, teachers are often confused about which resources to use and how to approach such a vast topic. With over 200 types of cancer, it can be overwhelming for even those that are in the know, never mind teachers who may have very little knowledge themselves. Many cancer charities, along with other health and educational organisations offer materials and tools to aid teachers in talking about cancer. However, the quality and relevance of information shared with pupils is variable and very much dependent on the enthusiasm, confidence and hard-work¬†of their teacher. We want to ensure that our young people are equipped with the tools to form healthy habits that they will keep for life and use to shape their lifestyles. At the moment, we can’t be sure this is happening.

In short, there is still lots more work to be done in order to answer fully how teachers can confidently raise this difficult topic with their pupils and ensure they are having an impact on both their awareness and behaviour. However, encouraging conversations and highlighting resources amongst the teaching community is certainly a step in the right direction.