Are Britain’s children and young people mentally and emotionally healthy? How important is their mental health and wellbeing to their long-term life satisfaction?
There’s an obvious response to these questions. Vitally important, and more important than anything else. More important, according to Lord Richard Layard – the economist and author of “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science” – than academic attainment.
In a recent post on the London School of Economics (LSE) Blog he said,
“The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.”
For those of us who’ve been working within and writing about this area of education for decades, Layard’s conclusions come as no surprise. What continues to astonish us is the mind-blowing blindness of education policymakers who persistently and consistently ignore or repudiate the importance of wellbeing within our schooling system.
How many reports and research projects do they need before they realise the detrimental impact of their attainment-focused education policy that ignores these other key aspects of schools’ work?
Will they ever learn?
Irrespective of political party, a succession of Secretaries of State for Education have relentlessly preached about a concentrated effort to “raise standards” as the only approach to addressing social and economic inequality. And they’ve ignored the enormous and life-changing differences in wellbeing, which Layard rightly points to as the most significant indicator of long-term life satisfaction. [Furthermore, politician’s policies on housing, health and social care have impacted very significantly and detrimentally so that any alleged “gains” through increased academic attainment are negated by policies that increase, not decrease, the social and economic gap.]
If you have difficulty in believing this then take a sample of 18-25 year olds and ask what the “standards” policy has done to impact on their lives and their wellbeing. We need to fully understand the effect of the academic pyramid, with few young people enjoying academic factory schooling and the majority disliking the enormous pressure to succeed and the way in which homework takes over their lives out of school.
In the “World Happiness Report 2015” (John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs), there’s a quote from Thomas Jefferson that says,
“The care of human life and happiness . . . . is the only legitimate object of good government.”
This is a fundamental purpose that’s been lost to many a politician chasing short-term targets for measureable educational improvements.
In Chapter 4 of the World Happiness Report 2015, in response to the Jefferson quote, Richard Layard and former Head of the Civil Service Gus O’Donnell say,
“What should be the goal of public policy? We agree with Thomas Jefferson. What matters is the quality of life, as people themselves experience it. And the best judge of each person’s life is that same person. Is she happy with her life; is she satisfied? In a democracy that should be the criterion of good policy.”
Our national policy towards education may have lost sight of the importance of “quality of life” to the point where stress, depression and low levels of mental health and wellbeing have been the “price to pay” for their interpretation of educational success.
This should never be the case.
Returning to his post on the LSE blog, Layard says,
“The biggest factors at work are mental health and the person’s ability to form good personal relationships. Academic success is no guarantee of either of these. Both are issues which need to be addressed directly. Moreover addressing them directly will not distract from academic performance but enhance it – since happy children learn better. Schools, worried by the pressure of targets for GCSE and A level, would actually do better academically if they also paid more attention to the emotional health of their children.
So we need an educational revolution where schools explicitly aim to improve the wellbeing of their children as well as their academic performance.”
Are we ready for this revolution in education? It will require a huge shift in mind-sets.
“This will probably require that schools measure their pupils’ wellbeing, just as they measure academic performance and physical wellbeing. It will require each school to have a wellbeing code. And it will need a fully professional attitude to teaching life skills. There are now well-evidenced programmes for teaching social and emotional learning, sex and relationships, healthy living, parenting, mindfulness and so on.”
One could weep for the wasted decades and the young people who’ve been affected by the failure to address inequality of wellbeing.
And yet, could there be glimmers of hope on the horizon?
In February, we reported on the Education Parliamentary Select Committee’s report, “Life Lessons: PSHE and SRE in Schools” here, here and here.
This committee called for statutory PSHE, including Sex and Relationships Education (with a preference for “RSE” and an emphasis on relationships.)
“We recommend that the DfE develop a workplan for introducing age-appropriate PSHE and RSE as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools, setting out its strategy for improving the supply of teachers able to deliver this subject and a timetable for achieving this.
The statutory requirement should have a minimal prescription in content, and should be constructed with the aim of ensuring that curriculum time is devoted to the subject. Alongside this, statutory guidance should be developed to enhance schools’ duty to work with parents in this area and secure an effective home-school partnership.”
Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, has to respond to this by the end of this week. She has already made welcome noises of support for PSHE but has fallen short of committing to statutory PSHE lessons.
We urge her to reconsider and follow the recommendations of her colleagues.
Another encouraging indicator of progress concerns the various changes to the new Ofsted Framework.
Previously, behaviour and safety have been judged but the inclusion of “Personal Development” and “Welfare” (though we’d have preferred the term wellbeing) has meant, for the first time, schools are going to be fully accountable and graded on these important areas of learning.
“Inspectors will make a judgement on the personal development, behaviour and welfare of children and learners by evaluating the extent to which the provision is successfully promoting and supporting children’s and other learners’:
Pride in achievement and commitment to learning, supported by a positive culture across the whole provider.
Self-confidence, self-awareness and understanding of how to be a successful learner.
Choices about the next stage of their education, employment, self-employment or training, where relevant, from impartial careers advice and guidance.
Where relevant, employability skills so that they are well prepared for the next stage of their education, employment, self-employment or training.
Prompt and regular attendance.
Following of any guidelines for behaviour and conduct, including management of their own feelings and behaviour, and how they relate to others.
understanding of how to keep themselves safe from relevant risks such as abuse, sexual exploitation and extremism, including when using the internet and social media
Knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy, both emotionally and physically, including through exercising and healthy eating.
Personal development, so that they are well prepared to respect others and contribute to wider society and life in Britain.
This is huge. Whilst in previous Ofsted reports there had been a grade for each of the Every Child Matters five outcomes, it had become a tick box exercise and didn’t reflect either the excellent or the poor work in this area.
This is different.
It’s a sad indictment that changes won’t occur through common sense and reason, and that we are in a situation of reliance on Ofsted’s criteria and judgements to make things happen, but if that’s the way it is, so be it. If Ofsted has finally woken up to the importance of wellbeing, then this has to be a good thing.
It’s also unfortunate that the inclusion of “personal wellbeing” has been as a reaction to issues such as the Trojan Horse fiasco on Birmingham, and the fatuous term “British Values” features too prominently in this latest Common Inspection Framework when it should be about “human values”.
(See previous posts on British values, here and here.)
However, there is hope, and if Nicky Morgan chooses to follow the guidance and recommendations from the Education Select Committee’s report on PSHE then maybe we could be on a pathway that truly considers the worth of Layard’s premise that a concentration on wellbeing rather than attainment should be a core purpose of any educational institution. . . . “where schools explicitly aim to improve the wellbeing of their children as well as their academic performance.”
As 3Di never tires of saying, there are other forms of intelligence beyond the academic and the intellectual, and we have a duty to enable every type of intelligence to flourish and blossom in every child.
See also 3Di Summary of the CBI’s “First Steps” report on the value and need for Life-Skills lessons.