New report endorses teaching of ‘well- being’ to children


Some critics believe that the science of well-being is a cod science and a charlatan’s charter. Wellbeing is surely unknowable and unmeasurable. It follows that teaching people happiness and well-being is not possible ,given that very different variables make individuals happy, and a sense of personal  well-being depends  on an individuals value system , their  individual preferences that flow from this  and personal ambitions.  Similarly one person’s unhappiness can mean another persons happiness. And its all a bit ‘Big-brotherly’ isn’t it? Surely, happiness, in any case, is more often achieved as a side product of other goals rather than as an end in itself.

However, in the wake of advances in psychology, in behavioral economics, neuroscience and sociology others are claiming that more and more evidence continues to emerge  about what does and doesn’t make people happy, that  it is rooted in science, so it can be taught.

Work over the past few years by many of the world’s leading statisticians could show that wellbeing, in all of its dimensions, is not inherently harder to measure than for instance economic prosperity, health or the environment. Political scientists such as Bruno Frey have challenged conventional economic theory for placing too great an emphasis on ‘extrinsic’ rather than ‘intrinsic’ motivations for an individual’s behaviour, intrinsic motivations being those that are rewarding because they fulfill psychological needs, extrinsic being those that motivate people to pursue aims that are believed to satisfy needs – for example financial gain.

Schools here, in both the state and independent sectors have, over the past five years, used such evidence to teach positive thinking and well-being in the classroom . Dozens of schools in Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire have been teaching children how to be resilient and showing according to Geoff Mulgan, former NO 10 Policy adviser, now heading the Young Foundation. Measurable results; lower depression, antisocial behaviour and better academic results are flowing from well being classes.

It is claimed that well- being classes aid self-discipline, and therefore ,amongst other things, classroom discipline , self- motivation and resilience all of which are  important in preparing young people for life after education. A report just out ‘The State of Happiness Can public policy shape people’s wellbeing and resilience? Nicola Bacon, Marcia Brophy, Nina Mguni, Geoff Mulgan & Anna Shandro 2010 – from the Young Foundation and the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA)- highlights that promoting and influencing happiness is no longer  what they term “ an airy aspiration”. Indeed, as the recession forces difficult public spending choices, services focused on wellbeing are delivering widespread economic and social benefits – especially to children.

The report brings together four years of groundbreaking work based on in-depth pilots – from teaching resilience to children in schools to promoting neighbourliness – with three councils in very different areas of the country: Manchester, Hertfordshire and South Tyneside.  The report recommends prioritizing programmes that teach children resilience in schools – drawing on strong evidence that this improves academic performance and behaviour as well as employability of pupils. It wants to see changing school curriculums to promote emotional resilience, partly in response to evidence on the relatively poor wellbeing of children in Britain. It also suggests support for families so parents are happier and children are less likely to face problems at home and at school .The report also says that we should look   at educational policy through a wellbeing lens which will  help  refocus  our attention on the broader aims of education: not only mastering the disciplines but also honing the social and emotional competencies that will enable pupils to flourish within school and in life. There is growing recognition the authors believe that teaching to test, and training teachers to teach to test, does not sufficiently prepare young people for 21st century life and work Local Wellbeing Projects has demonstrated how an emphasis on wellbeing in schools can be used as part of wider strategies to improve attainment and behaviour

An increasing number are signing up to cross-curriculum programmes, such as the Government’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL).  The UK Resilience Programme, modeled on the University of Pennsylvania programme, is the largest trial of this approach in any country to date.  Partner authorities funded the work from a number of different sources including Neighbourhood Renewal Funding and children’s mental health budgets. The evaluation of the pilot is funded by DCSF and is being carried out by the London School of Economics.

UKRP aims to improve the emotional resilience of 11 to 13 year olds by enhancing a number of important life skills to enable them to deal constructively with daily problems and challenges. The curriculum focuses on cognitive skills, social problem-solving skills, assertiveness, negotiation and relaxation through various methods, including applying new skills to the real world.  The curriculum is taught by trained UKRP teachers, over eighteen hours to groups no larger than fifteen. 22 schools are participating in the programme and 323 teachers have been trained to deliver the programme so far. Two thousand students participated in the academic year 2007-08 and the impact of the programme is being monitored over three years.

The first year findings appear to be promising. The initial quantitative work found a significant positive impact on pupils’ depression and anxiety symptom scores for those schools where the treatment and control groups were well matched. This effect was larger for girls than for boys, for pupils who had lower baseline scores for depression and anxiety, and for those who had not met target levels for Key stage 2 in their exams. The longer term impact on pupil wellbeing, as well as other factors such as educational attainment, attendance and classroom behaviour, will be monitored over the duration of the programme. The final evaluation report is expected at the end of 2010. Anecdotal evidence from the partner local authorities is positive and they remain committed to rolling out the programmes authority wide. The teachers and pupils involved in the programme – as well as head teachers from the pilot schools- have been able to articulate the positive impact of UKRP in the classrooms and beyond.


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