The concept of the 'Health Promoting School' has been widely advocated as an approach to enhancing public health through school based health promotion. In many areas 'Healthy Schools Award' schemes have been set up to support the development of this concept, but there is no information on how widespread this practice is in the UK, how standards are evaluated, and what effect Healthy Schools Awards may have on young peoples' health. This UK national survey aimed to determine the extent and nature of existing award schemes and how they were being evaluated. A postal questionnaire was sent to all 200 health promotion units in the UK; the response rate corrected for mergers of units was 78.5%. Sixty-eight respondents (51%) were involved with an award scheme and 28 (21%) were planning them. Current award schemes were mostly jointly run by the health and education sectors, encompassing 845 participating schools of which two-thirds were primary schools. The most common issues addressed were; standard chronic disease risk behaviour, the environment and health education in the national curriculum; less frequently addressed were mental health, accident prevention, staff health and developing links with the wider community. Evaluation was usually by target setting and assessment of progress over a two year period. However, evaluation was rarely external or independent, raising doubts about the standards obtained and validity of the approaches. This survey highlights the rapid growth of healthy schools award schemes and the need for wider exchange of information on good practice. In particular there is a need for more explicit and measurable standards of achievement to ensure the quality of award schemes, and further research into their effectiveness.