The following is from an interesting article in the Guardian this week, and well worth a read – although it would be a very good thing indeed if journalists (and others who should know better) could desist from using the word ‘happiness’ when the key issue under discussion is wellbeing. No-one can cause children and pupils to be ‘happy’ – as if ‘happiness’ could ever be a permanent condition anyway – but there’s an enormous amount that schools and parents can do to ensure wellbeing.
Schools strive for pupils’ happiness
From David Cameron to Unicef, most agree children’s wellbeing should be a priority. Why has it been cast into Ofsted’s dustbin, and regarded as ‘ghastly’ and ‘peripheral’ by education ministers?
by Stephanie Northen
If David Cameron is still keen on spreading happiness – one of his big ideas – he could take some tips from a village school in Norfolk. He could, for example, inspire a gloomy House of Commons with a poster outlining “five simple steps to a happier parliament” that would encourage MPs to be kind, polite, sensible, safe and tidy.
The prime minister could then establish good relationships with MPs’ parents and carers, make sure that he treats them all equally and fairly, and that they all feel loved and valued – even the naughty ones.
Doing this might give Westminster a chance of reaching levels of wellbeing as impressive as those at Gooderstone primary. Children’s wellbeing is “central to everything that happens” at the 65-pupil school.
When the prime minister set up the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, he said that finding out what improved lives was a serious business for government.
Now here’s the central issue in this week’s Guardian column, echoing yet again concerns we’ve already drawn attention to in recent blogs regarding children’s rights and the United Nations Charter –
Cameron’s commitment to wellbeing is shared by, among others, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund. But what about his own Department for Education? While the Office for National Statistics is busy compiling the country’s first wellbeing tables, the DfE has written it out of the new inspection framework.
The new framework requires them to check on behaviour and safety, but not how a school cares for its pupils. It does not refer to health or emotions. It mentions relationships only as potential hazards and friends only as “critical” ones. Gone is the need to make sure that pupils have a “strong voice in decisions relating to their learning and wellbeing”. Indeed, the word “wellbeing”, which ran like a river through the previous Ofsted framework, has disappeared.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, has said the new framework will allow inspectors to concentrate on what matters and forget the “peripherals”. Thus, wellbeing has been cast into Ofsted’s dustbin . . .
Yet many in education believe that wellbeing is not peripheral. For headteachers like Baldwin, it is the foundation on which to build academic excellence and the exemplary behaviour so prized by Gove.
Debbie Watson, whose book Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing in Schools is published tomorrow, says there has been a policy void with regard to wellbeing in education since the coalition came to power.
Watson, who is director of childhood studies at Bristol University, argues that wellbeing is a “poorly understood, rather nebulous concept”. It should, she says, start with individual children, celebrating and respecting their rights and needs.
Watson says that two key initiatives introduced by Labour and still in use – Every Child Matters and the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (Seal) programmes – have flaws because they are “top-down rather than roots-up”. Nevertheless, “the concept of wellbeing must not be allowed to disappear”.
That wellbeing is at risk of disappearing is surprising, given that it won the backing of two recent major reassessments of primary education: the independent Cambridge Primary Review and the Rose Review of the curriculum.
“It is absolutely common sense that wellbeing and achievement are linked,” says Ruth Harker, principal of Shenley Academy, “and it is regrettable that Ofsted’s new framework does not make this more explicit, especially as young people’s wellbeing is such an issue for the country.”
It became an issue for Shenley following the 2007 Unicef report that relegated the UK to last position in terms of young people’s wellbeing.
“Some Unicef findings were very stark and upsetting. We resolved to help students develop positive attitudes to learning, to education and to each other.”
Extra time is devoted at Shenley to a bespoke Learning for Life programme. Gooderstone’s work is loosely based on themed Values for Life assemblies as well as the Seal programme, introduced to primary schools in 2003.
Before Seal, there was resistance to the idea that schools should help children to develop social and emotional skills, says Neil Humphrey, professor of psychology of education at Manchester University.
By contrast, says Humphrey, social and emotional learning (SEL) in the US has a much better track record. A meta-analysis by Chicago academics of 213 SEL programmes last year found that pupils’ social and emotional skills, attitudes and behaviour significantly improved – and there was an 11 percentage-point gain in achievement.
This achievement spin-off would surely appeal to any education minister – even Nick Gibb, who has dismissed social and emotional learning as “ghastly” and likely to distract from “the core subjects of academic education”.
Humphrey worries about the way the political pendulum is swinging. “We’ve got a lot of whip-cracking about standards, a lot of stress on the three Rs. But government needs to get the right balance between the academic, the social and the psychological aspects of education. Kids don’t just need their five A*s at GCSE, they need to be able to get on with other people.”
So what are educationalists supposed to make of all this? What of the politicians?
Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis, Minister of State for Schools, and formerly a chartered accountant specialising in corporate taxation with KPMG, has dismissed social and emotional learning as “ghastly”. Clearly there are accountants and politicians in various places who understand the concepts of social intelligence and emotional intelligence, and possibly even spiritual intelligence, but not Mr Gibb. Interesting then that the first of his ministerial responsibilities listed on the Department for Education website is “Behaviour and attendance, bullying”.
Mr Gibb’s sole concern seems to be that pupils’ learning how to be socially, emotionally and spiritually intelligent is “likely to distract from the core subjects of academic education”. Was there ever a clearer case of putting the cart before the horse? Perhaps Mr Gibb, who achieved an honours degree in law, thinks we should have police officers in all our schools and go down the American route, using the law to prosecute children as young as 6 years of age, in order to eliminate poor behaviour and bullying. [Have a look at this interesting pieces in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/09/texas-police-schools ]
Perhaps Mr Gove’s solution to poor attitudes and behaviour is simply to put more copies of the Bible into every school. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/17/michael-gove-king-james-bible . It’s worth taking a look at readers’ comments after this article – both the amusing and the angry ones.