A study has found Dunedin secondary schools are "sorely lacking" proper sun protection.
University of Otago researchers from the Cancer Society Social and Behavioural Research Unit, Bronwen McNoe and Associate Professor Tony Reeder, looked at sun protection practices of staff and students at 10 schools on sports days last summer.
The assessment found only three percent of students wore a sun-protective hat while waiting to compete in events and only 25 percent of adult supervisors wore such a hat.
It comes after Australian researchers found New Zealand surpassed Australia for the highest rate of melanoma in the world.
"More than 90 percent of skin cancers are linked with excessive exposure to UVR, either from sunlight or artificial sources, like sunbeds," Assoc Prof Reeder says.
"Childhood and adolescence are particularly important times to avoid these harmful exposures."
Shade was not generally available to students, either when competing or waiting to compete, although sunscreen was provided by half of the schools.
The researchers recommended students and staff should be encouraged to wear sun-protective clothing and hats and broad spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen should always be provided.
They also encouraged sports facilities, such as the council-owned athletics track where most Dunedin athletics sports days are held, to provide built or portable shade for students and other athletes waiting to compete.
Assoc Prof Reeder says schools needed better support to help them meet recommended practices.
"One principal of a large college commented that their school did not receive sufficient funding for them to pay for the grass to be mowed, let alone build adequate shade for students."
However, he says he doesn't find the results surprising.
"The age group is a challenging age group," he says.
The research found schools with associated primary classes were better at sun safety than schools that didn't. Being sun smart tended to drop a bit lower on the priority list at secondary schools, he says.
"I think the institutions themselves need to provide that sort of leadership and try and generate the social norms that would support that sort of protective behaviour."
Ms McNoe says adolescents attended school during peak UVR hours (10am -- 4pm) five days a week, and spent some of that time outdoors.
At primary school level, the Cancer Society's SunSmart Schools programme was designed to help prevent getting sunburnt. The World Health Organization guidelines on sun protection also need to be applied at secondary level, Ms McNoe says.
Although most adolescents were aware skin cancer is a risk of sun exposure, she says this knowledge tends not to be translated into effective sun protection behaviour.
"We cannot afford to let teenagers be put in the 'too hard' basket," Ms McNoe says.
"The creation of supportive institutional policies, practices and environmental settings are proven ways to encourage appropriate sun protective behaviours."
Assoc Prof Reeder agrees, saying it shouldn't be left up to schools individually to determine sun protection policies.
"Students in some schools shouldn't be better protected and better provided for than other schools," he says.
The latest findings also relate to results of a national survey by the same researchers of 211 secondary schools, published earlier this month in the US journal Preventive Medicine Reports.
In that survey, school sun protection planning, behavioural expectations, curriculum content and environments were assessed and the researchers allocated a total sun protection "score" to each school.
The average national score was only 4.6 out of a possible score of 11.
Assoc Prof Reeder says having a formal written sun protection policy is an important first step to make sure students and staff are safe in the sun.
In New Zealand, where we enjoy unpolluted skies and outdoor lifestyles, the downside is we have extremely high rates of skin cancer, by far the most common cancer type, he says.
The results of the study appear in the April issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.