Weaving well-being into the fabric of secondary education–starting where schools are now

Psychologists are pragmatists  – or at least they should be. Applying theories, models, the emerging evidence base and clinical judgement to the unique circumstances that they are presented with – whether that be an individual, a family, an organisational or societal dilemma. It is all about goodness of fit; and as Bateson said in respect of systems theory, introducing a “difference that makes the difference”. Too much and the ideas will be rejected. Too little and they are lost. I have been thinking about this in respect of the ‘whole school approach’, and how to achieve that sense of safety and belonging that is critical if we are to promote the emotional well-being of all children in our education settings. In primary schools it is much easier, and already many are a warm, happy place where children thrive. Sometimes this is as a result of the conscious efforts of the staff team, inspired by the knowledge that children can only learn when their basic need to feel safe and secure is met. For others it is the natural position adopted by the leadership team that promotes, supports and attracts this culture. Others still, of course, have a long way to go – but lets hope they catch on. The momentum is certainly growing for a more nurturing environment in our schools.

In secondary education the task is much harder, and it is in this transition that many of our most vulnerable children lose their way. Comprehensive schools are big and unwieldy, and they have a specific job to do. The piece of paper that a young person leaves their gates with at the end of year 11 is the measure by which they are judged. Their modus operandi is competition – top set, student of the term, inter-form netball, most money collected for charity, prizes for the best results, the best sportsperson, the best musician, ‘A’ Team, ‘B’ Team, no team– you name it kids are pitted against each other and there are winners and losers at every turn. Some children thrive in this environment – especially those who are well supported at home and excel (or are heavily tutored) in some or all of the qualities valued in this system. Others survive, keeping their head just above water. They find ‘their place’, albeit slightly depleted by the knowledge that they will never be ‘top’. Others fail miserably, and school is experienced as somewhere where they are never good enough. If they are lucky they go on to find their niche in adult life, but for many this feeling doesn’t leave them, especially if they were never good enough at home either. Of course teenagers are already adept at doing this with and about each other anyway – with the in groups and the out groups and the ‘tiers of popularity’ as my teenage daughter describes it. Just being in a group helps, of course, even if it is the ‘lower tier’. Often our most vulnerable children have no group at all.

So what is the solution? How can we weave emotional well-being and self-belief into the fabric of the school when so many of the practices and internal and external pressures work against this? We should, of course, look at the growing knowledge that is amassing about child development, and what children need to thrive, and design an education system around this.  It is basic evidence based practice after all. However, this would pose such a huge challenge to the status quo as it would mean starting from scratch. I wont give up trying though.  Especially having experienced Canadian schools with my own children, and knowing that many of our inherent assumptions about how education needs to be are simply not true. I have written about this in previous blogs. But being a pragmatist let’s start with the strengths of the current UK system and build on that, asking the all important question: What is the difference that can make a difference? As a psychologist, emotional well-being is all about relationships, and the ‘form’ system lends itself beautifully to nurturing this. Children start high school in one form, and usually they remain in that form for the next five years, often with the same form tutor. In some schools they have mixed year group forms, and, in my opinion this is even better. The youngest in the school (who are often terrified of older children) join an established form. They can look up to their role models, and see how they negotiate the challenges that each stage brings; and become those role models of the future. And of learning can go in all directions, with younger children gaining confidence and realising they have something to offer too.

So, starting with the basic form structure, ideally in mixed age groups, how can we use this to nurture emotional well-being and create a sense of safety and belonging for all children and young people? The Head at the High School my son attended in Canada said at a welcome evening ‘We get them through the door in the morning with something they love, then it is our job to keep them interested in the subjects that may have less appeal for some’. Granted it was a publicly funded arts school and my son’s major happened to drumming, and his form happened to be a band but…..this is a great goal for a form to aim for. And with the resources of thirty kids of all ages and abilities to draw on for ideas surely it stands a chance? If the form tutor were to ask the class how to make registration as much fun as possible what would they say? Music? Dancing? Rounders? Joke telling? Board games? Thirty kids generating as many ideas as possible and each having a turn to give theirs a go would be one way of starting the morning on a high. There would of course need to be some limitations – but please, for twenty five minutes of the day, don’t let noise be one of them. Unless of course any of the young people are sensitive to noise – in which case the form need to think about how they manage this.

If we were to go a step further, and make fun AND well-being the focus of those first twenty five minutes of the day how might that look? Rather handily there are five days of the week, and five ways to well-being. What if a day a week was dedicated to each one? Monday could be connection day – especially important for children who have had a difficult weekend. How could they welcome each other and create a sense of belonging and ‘family’ to start their week? What might become their unique rituals and traditions? Tuesday could be giving day – what is the forms chosen cause? They could give their time, their skills,  or raise money or simply give to each other. Compliments go a long way to getting your day off to a good start. Wednesday could be about getting active – to tackle that mid week slump. A brisk walk? Stretching? Dancing? Simon Says? Body popping? The ideas would need to come from them of course. Thursday could be taking notice – there are lots of great mindfulness exercises as well as an opportunity to reflect on how they are in the moment – noticing their feelings and, over time, practicing expressing them in a safe and supportive way. And Friday would be learn a new skill day – now that could be really fun. Bagpipes? Slime making? Pom Poms?. I appreciate all of these ideas would flop because they are mine not theirs but hopefully you get the drift…..

So, if we had mixed aged forms, with names chosen by the young people, and a sense of fun, belonging and well-being as their central goal how might that make a difference? Well, for a start new students in year seven would join an existing family rather than having to create one on top of everything else. Indeed in primary they could receive a letter (or a video of course!) welcoming them to Hufflepuff or whatever their form happened to be called. Imagine how exciting that would be! They could be allocated an older buddy to help them settle and tell them what to expect. Indeed one theory about bullying is that it is reduced when children are given the opportunity to give care.  Younger children would have role models to look up to who they would see around the school throughout the day. These would be real people with stories other than the ‘cool kid’ or the ‘scary kid’ or ‘the geek’. The form tutors role would be to help facilitate participation so that everyone in the class contributed in their own unique way and were encouraged to find their voice no matter how quiet. They could keep an eye out for the vulnerable kids who never felt a part of things no matter what was tried. Everyone would have an equal responsibility for what happened during form time. If it wasn’t fun why not? What should they do about it? The five ways to well being would be experiential rather than taught, and embedded over five years of the young person’s life. It would also become a way of life for the teacher for as long as they held that role. Most importantly there would be no evaluation, assessment or competitive element to what happened in the form time – the one place in school where young people and teachers could just be. If this was working well then every young person would think that their form was the ‘best’. Now that would be worth getting out of bed for.

5 thoughts on “Weaving well-being into the fabric of secondary education–starting where schools are now

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  1. You make some really valid points about the impact that school organisation has on young people’s health & well-being. Do you have any views on the impact that the structure of the curriculum has and the demands placed on schools to achieve specific standards? Curriculum content, delivery mechanisms, teaching methodologies all, in my opinion add to the culture of emotional challenge for so many of our children.

    I note with interest how Singapore are moving away from a ‘teach it test it – knowledge is everything’ system to one which is more aligned to the Finish system which places an emphasis on a skills led curriculum.

    Your references to ripping it up and starting again may appear radical but may actually the the best solution.

    Amanda Spielman and Damien Hinds do seem to be listening to this argument and there are some suggestions that change is coming.

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    1. I have lots of views about teaching to the test – and having spent three years in Canada with my children I was so inspired by the very different approach they have there. Just back from a Welsh Government conference on well-being and it does seem to be much more of a priority. They are changing their curriculum to reflect this which is very exciting!

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  2. This is a really informative article. With mental health issues on the rise and many teenagers suffering with eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety and depression and lack of supportive care to address them. Surely, wouldn’t it be far better to tackle the problems by putting wellbeing at the heart of education. If we appropriately support children’s emotional and social development from a young age, up through secondary school, then not only would we have happier young people but their academic education would improve too. This absolutely has to be a whole school approach and Heads and teaching practitioners need to be courageous, bold and innovative!

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