Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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A matter of principle
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I was very pleased to see that our new book made the front page splash in the Times Educational Supplement. The book is primarily aimed at teachers so this is very much the audience we want to reach.
The focus of Neil Munro’s piece was the most controversial aspect of the book – the fact that I’m warning of the potential dangers of a taught approach to emotional literacy in schools.
What I hope people will realise is that the Centre has no vested interest in taking this line. This type of work is all the rage down south. There are a growing number of organisations, consultants and consultancies dedicated to this type of work and we could easily have joined them.
But we don’t want to. The issue for myself, and colleagues at the Centre, with the English approach to social and emotional skills (SEAL) is how programmatic and systematic it is. What it is recommending to schools is that all children from 3 to 18 are formally taught on a year on year basis social and emotional skills. For 3-11 year olds there are 42 learning outcomes and for secondary pupils 50. There is now a huge industry churning out materials.
The architects of SEAL think it is beneficial that they are supposedly now eradicating the idea of a ‘deficit’ by teaching all young people social and emotional skills. But in effect they are extending the deficit to all children. Do we want to give young people the message that we all need to learn about feelings and relationships from experts in a professional setting? Will this not encourage help-seeking behaviour and a view of emotions and relationships which will fuel mental health problems (and overload state services) in the long run? This is precisely the critique advanced cogently by Professor Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture.
Self-awareness, and emotional awareness are at the heart of both Primary and Secondary SEAL. But do we want to encourage people to be overly concerned with how they feel? Psychologists now talk about a ‘negativity bias’ which means that it is very easy for people to become depressed if they become too introspective or ruminative. What’s more in an age like ours where we are very focused on ourselves is this approach not likely to encourage even more individualism, narcissism and an obsession with how one feels in the moment? Who says that expressing feelings is inevitably good? A growing body of research contradicts this. For example, counselling or debriefing people after negative incidents can make them more, not less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. How can we know that a focus on feelings and emotions for thirteen years of young people’s lives in the classroom will actually benefit, as opposed to undermine, their long term mental health?
One of the difficulties with critiquing this agenda is that it is so obviously well-meaning and touchy-feely. Many people nowadays have been put off by the target-driven, management-by-objectives approach which dominates public sector organisations including schools. So, after all the cold logic and strategies, is it not great to hear people talking about emotions and feelings? The warm and emotional feel to SEAL is further enhanced by the fact that advocates keep talking about the importance of a ‘holistic’ approach and seem to be urging us to be more child-centred.
But the Department of Children, Schools and Families (following in the footsteps of the DfES) is grafting this focus on emotions onto its standard practices. If this initiative succeeds as planned, and schools fully implement the recommendations, all young people’s emotional lives (not just the few who have obvious difficulties) will become the focus for checklists, assessments and evaluations. The learning outcomes are, in effect, a template of the ideal pupil against which real young people will be judged. Many will be found wanting and told they have to improve. If you examine the learning outcomes you’ll see much of this is related to personality. Some types of people are much more inclined to express feelings or analyse their behaviour than others. For all that there is talk of ‘personalisation’ and respect for differences there is little recognition in this approach that people are different. Since the template for primary is essentially about being a ‘nice girl’ boys may take a dim view. The Guidance note even recognises this (and that boys may be ridiculed for this behaviour outside of school) but then simply urges teachers to be ‘sensitive’. The pilots on SEAL did in fact show that boys had more negative responses after the programme than before. Some teachers reported that the difficult kids also became more rebellious.
Feelings, emotions and relationships are the core of our personal lives. They are an intimate part of us. The Centre believes that any initiative which suggests that government departments, schools and teachers should micromanage young people’s feelings is Orwellian and a good enough reason on its own to say we have to drop this idea altogether.
The problem (or should that be good thing?) with our approach is that it doesn't lend itself to packs or learning outcomes.
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