In a companion piece to ‘Mind That Child’ in our 17 September magazine, in which Jennifer Lipman charted the disturbing rise of mental health issues in young people, Lisa Botwright looks at what schools are doing at grassroots level to support the well-being of the children in their care: which prompts the question ‘Can – and should – happiness be taught in schools?’
At St Helen’s College in Hillingdon – a school for 4-11 year olds and a charming oasis of geniality – happiness is high on the agenda. According to the school’s last inspection, pupils ‘thrive in a happy, positive atmosphere with a strong sense of purpose and enthusiasm’. The effervescent Head, Shirley Drummond, is committed to the Mindfulness programme that she is rolling out: “Sometimes I just take the children outside – ask them to look at the sky, hear their footsteps – it’s so important in their busy lives.”
Mindfulness is not a new idea, although it’s certainly trending in education circles just at the moment. St Hilda’s Prep School in Bushey is also introducing it for its older pupils. Headmistress Sarah Jane Styles thinks that the study and practice of mindfulness has never been more vital. “In this fast-paced world, it can be so difficult, particularly for children, to switch off and really experience ‘peace and quiet’ in the truest sense of the term.”
If you think this sounds ‘fluffy’, think again. The statistics of young people suffering from symptoms of mental illness is alarming. Of the four key manifestations of teenage mental ill-health – anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm – conservative estimates indicate a rise of more than 70%. However, with ‘grit awards’, ‘mental health champions’ and the first ever ‘character symposium’ earlier this year, education policy is increasingly reflecting this concern, and investing in strategies to encourage schools to champion resilience and mental wellbeing as a priority.
“Society has changed so much,” Mrs Drummond continues. “Fifteen years ago schools didn’t need to prepare a child so early; now children need a bit more help finding their way. Just look at the example of teaching online safety.” As well as Mindfulness (“hugely beneficial for encouraging focus and emotional intelligence”), children at St Helen’s College are taught Philosophy (“asking the big questions right from nursery”) Positive Psychology, Character Education and Growth Mindset.
“Unfortunately, so many schools say they’re doing these things, but they’re not. We live and breathe the principles of Character Education and Growth Mindset. All the research suggests that with a structured programme in place, fully embedded in the ethos of the school, the child’s mental health and wellbeing will improve.”
Character Education – specifically teaching admirable personality characteristics such as kindness and tenacity – is largely the legacy of former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who championed the idea that it “prepares our young people for life in modern Britain, regardless of their background or where they grew up.” Nicky Morgan’s role was arguably to smooth feathers ruffled by her predecessor, Michael Gove, but it is an idea that has been embraced positively by teachers up and down the country. Interestingly, we have yet to hear the newly appointed Education Secretary, Justine Greening’s thoughts on this subject.
Amanda Godfrey, Executive Head of the Spiral Partnership Trust (a learning community of local primary schools and children’s centres, including the oversubscribed Fleetville Junior School in St Albans), is fully on board with the concept of character education, and has incorporated it into all her schools: “All of our head teachers are very conscious of the need to model a positive approach. Whole school assemblies attended by all members of staff are a key driver for ensuring this positive attitude that permeates the school. The whole school assembly themes, such as change, resilience, collaboration and pride are then explored in class PSHE lessons and reflected in the interactions between staff and children throughout the week. Staff insets prioritise the importance of social and emotional intelligence.” As she pertinently sums up: “Being happy doesn’t just support learning, it is absolutely integral to it.”
Education pioneer Carol Dweck, and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success has been a huge catalyst for revising mental attitudes towards learning. Dr Dweck found that students’ mindsets – how they perceive their abilities – played a key role in their motivation and achievement: “We found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).” With this in mind, teachers are now encouraged to praise effort, rather than praise ability. In the words of Shirley Drummond, “There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t do it’. If a child finds something difficult, they’re taught to see that they just can’t do it ‘yet’.”
If you’re still not convinced by the scientific evidence, and think happiness rather too esoteric a concern for education practitioners, be inspired by Julie Hunter, Assistant Headteacher of Bradon Forest Senior School in Wiltshire, who embarked on a distance learning course run by the University of Berkeley, California, specifically to learn about ‘the science of happiness.’
Ms Hunter could see that her students were “increasingly unhappy;” but worried that happiness was rather a “fluffy slant” to take to her senior leadership team. After studying the neuroscience and sociological history and reality behind happiness, the ten week course enabled her to bring a “harder edge in those discussions on happy students.”
One of the things the course teaches is that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social ties and contributing to something bigger than yourself – the greater good. This means that Citizenship is now firmly at the centre of the Bradon Forest’s curriculum. “This year we are looking at our role as global citizens and how, when we see things which adversely affect others, there are things we can do for the greater good. Students will be looking at the aspect of connecting, volunteering to give them those happy moments which come from looking beyond themselves.”
That is one aspect of happiness, but what else does it mean to us as individuals? What exactly is happiness? Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, describes it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Unfortunately, many young people feel that these fundamental life goals are increasingly elusive. A survey of 5,000 teenagers, undertaken by the Young Minds charity, found a significant level of anxiety about their economic prospects for the future; seriously affecting their optimism for a “meaningful life”.
Natasha Devon MBE, who was controversially sacked from her role as the government’s first ever Mental Health Champion for Schools after criticising the Department for Education for their overly-rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure, argues that young people have understandable concerns that need to be addressed by tackling wider social issues. Even for young people lucky enough to find employment, “a normal wage is no longer enough to live a normal life,” she points out. Although Natasha Devon is the co-founder of the Self Esteem Team, a programme specifically designed to “give teens the skills to help navigate modern life,” she is nevertheless appalled by the government’s emphasis on character and resilience education, and argues that it is simply an “excuse to pile on even more pressure” – a way of deflecting attention away from misguided government policy: “this way the [teachers and pupils] can be blamed when they can’t cope.”
Whatever your views, it’s clear that happy children learn better and that happy adults go on to lead more successful lives and contribute more to society. Shirley Drummond reflects, “Sometimes I feel that we have lost sight about what education is all about. We are preparing children for the world of work in an over-populated world, where social skills are just as important as qualifications. Although it’s all about striking a balance – why shouldn’t quality of life be the goal?”