Three steps to putting wellbeing at heart of every school

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant event: The Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference

Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Buckingham writes

Back in ancient times, at least 10 years ago, we used to believe that schools had to make a critical choice. They could either maximise their exam results and academic performance, or they could look after their students and staff, and care for their wellbeing. The clear conventional wisdom was that, if we spent too much time fussing about whether our students were happy, it would damage their academic prospects. Academic standards were what schools were there to do; the other stuff – happiness, character, meaning – were very much secondary, and it was left to other people to pick it up. Which meant it often wasn’t done.

What a different world we are living in now! The frightening and inexorable increase in mental illness and problems among students, as well as dropout rates among staff, have forced us to think again. Earlier this month, The Times reported that 1 in 5 students admit to self-harming. The same day, a report in the Guardian said that, in London, nearly half of new teachers have quit within five years.

In the face of such a devastating picture of widespread distress, it is the height of madness to persist with the ideological belief that exam results are all that matter in schools. At a dinner discussion at a London university last week, a series of state school heads told me that their schools had been suffering terribly from the widespread belief that all that matters is exam results. These were not moaners, but high quality heads, running high performing schools. And they are all fed up with the current system. Utterly fed up and disillusioned.

Academic studies in the last 10 years are also responsible for a rethink about our priorities. They show that the right psychological interventions in wellbeing improve (not undermine) the ability of students to learn and perform well. In other words, one can have one’s cake and eat it. Wellbeing and results. No longer will it be one or the other. Both at the same time.

The undoubted leader of this new kind of thinking on ’positive psychology’, as it is called, is Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. The key difference between his approach and the traditional one, ie that you can either have academic results or happiness, is that a focus on wellbeing enhances performance. ‘Positive education’, which is grounded on positive psychology, builds student capacity and ability to perform well. Traditional psychology is focused on what goes wrong and how to ameliorate it; positive psychology is concerned with what goes right, and how we can embed and deepen it.

Two of Seligman’s better-known protégés, both themselves now world famous, are Angela Duckworth, celebrated for her work on character and resilience, and David Cooperrider, renowned for his work on grateful communities, or ‘appreciative enquiry’, as it is called.

What schools need to do

So what do schools themselves need to do? Most important is that heads themselves give a strong lead, in at least three areas, none of which need to cost any money (vital factor in these cash-strapped times).

  1. First, gratitude. School leaders need to ensure that the whole community philosophy is based on being appreciative of the efforts of students and staff, rather than the school communities being places which are full of fear and risk averse. Mistakes are to be encouraged and learnt from, not feared and scorned.
  2. Second, human relationships are valued above all else. Every child is known individually and treated individually. Relationships in such schools are positive and nurturing, based on what positive psychologists call ‘active constructive engagement’. The head is a highly visible figure constantly present at any door where students, staff and parents most regularly pass through, and never hiding behind their desks, in dreaded committees, or behind the metal wall of their posh BMW parked conspicuously and provocatively in the car park.
  3. Third, the body and the hand are educated, and not just the head. Students are given opportunities to draw, make objects and play sport with their hands and feet. Students and staff are told the supreme importance of healthy bodies which are well exercised, watered, fed, rested and slept. Where the body is healthy and alert, the mind has the best possibility of thriving too.

Professor Seligman is leading a cast of great speakers at The Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference, including: Bryony Gordon, who encouraged the royal princes to open up about their mental health; Geoff Barton of ASCL and Natasha Devon, at Friends House on Friday 19 October. Tickets are £119 each and available to purchase here.

Read on the SSAT blog: A school-based framework to equip teachers in addressing students’ mental health

Follow Sir Anthony Seldon on Twitter

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