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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. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. 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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Posted 15/03/2009 | 4 Comments

I spoke on Saturday in Birmingham at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders – one of the main trade unions for head  teachers.  At the beginning of my speech I said, and I meant it, that this was the most important speech I’ll give all year:  the topic I was speaking on - well-being in schools –  is not just important for them as a head teachers, it also goes to the very heart of the type of country we are, and want to become.

This centre is interested in real well-being. We are convinced by the research which tells us that pursuing materialistic goals (those based on appearance, money and possessions and fame) undermines well-being and that what is good for encouraging it is real relationships, family, work, fulfilling leisure and physical activity. A sense of meaning and purpose is also fundamentally important and this means serving a goal bigger than yourself. The more unequal societies are the more they compromise the well-being of those at the bottom. Although it is also true that the whole society suffers as pronounced inequality reduces trust and social capital. Much of what I describe in this paragraph is the type of society the UK is becoming – overly concerned with celebrity, tv and money; obese; unequal; and obsessed with ourselves and time for ‘me’. (Because I’m worth it.)  This culture envelops all of us -  not just Sharon Matthews but also Fred Goodwin.

When it come to young people the issue here is also about lack of physical activity, not enough time playing outdoors, too much time on screens, the influence of celebrity culture, a breakdown of family life and time spent with parents … .

Repeatedly I’m told by schools that one of the main shifts in society is the majority of parents now believe that it is a terrible thing if their child has a bad day or a bad experience. So everyday they have a queue of parents to complain about children not doing well in tests, not getting parts in the school play or falling out with friends. The subtext here is their child is the centre of the universe, no other child matters and their child can do no wrong. The teachers can see  that this is leading to a protective environment where there is a fear of challenging children in case the child has a negative experience and that this is undermining young people’s resilience. What is particularly worrying about this is that our young people are likely to face colossal challenges – melting polar ice caps, disturbed weather patterns, a debt mountain and insecure employment – yet we are bringing them up to believe it is a terrible thing if they don’t get the main part in the school play, fall out with friends, or lose at school sports (this is why many schools don’t have winners at school sports days).

If we inject into this an emphasis on happiness or even well-being I  don’t see how it is not going to make it worse.  Of course, psychological experts can then say ‘this is not what we mean by happiness’ and give their definition but the world doesn’t work like this. It is not sophisticated ideas that get transmitted through a culture but watered down versions. The part of my speech where I talked about the impact that self-esteem building by schools and parents is now having on young people has attracted a great deal of publicity. But I was really using it as an illustration of how psychological ideas can easily backfire. What I’m really concerned about is the next great psychological idea in the offing – SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning). This is about emotional literacy and increasingly about happiness lessons. One of the strands of primary SEAL is called 'good to be me' and much of it is a focus on the self.

I’ve written two big papers outlining the shaky evidence base to much of this change and sounded various warnings which you can read. All I want to say here is that all this emphasis on feelings is, I believe, going to reinforce – not counteract - the narcissism of the age and is likely to undermine resilience further. The potential for ironic effects with psychological interventions, particularly mass psychological interventions – is enormous.

Another big issue at stake here is this: what is the appropriate role for schools and what for families? Historically the family has socialised children, been responsible for their health and well-being and taught them about life and how to handle it. Schools have been about education.  However, the Government (and this Government in particular) has increasingly stood this on its head. What was the Department for Education is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families. (Note the word order.) It is schools which the Government sees as the way to influence young people’s well-being and socialise them. The family is being put in the back seat. This is why schools are being saddled with more and more responsibilities and functions.  What doesn’t make sense about this is that schools only have young people for 15% of their time – schools can never replace the family, unless they become boarding schools. The attempt to make schools take over the function of the family will make some parents withdraw even more as the responsible people in the child’s life. Of course, this will encourage them not just to say 'och don’t worry about that, the school teaches them all about it' but also to conveniently blame the school if the child does anything problematic.

What’s more the Government is tackling the socialisation of children in exactly the same centralised way that it carries out other tasks – through tick boxes, learning outcomes, targets, goal setting etc. Our emotional lives  are the most intimate part of us but now young people’s emotions and feelings are to be the subject of professional control and scrutiny; young people’s personalities’ have to be moulded to what is considered suitable. There is a huge difference between giving young people information or access to some training, for example on assertiveness, which they can then decide to accept or reject and saying ‘you should be assertive and you need to set goals for becoming more so’.

I have never argued that no good work could happen under the SEAL banner but what I have argued, and still passionately believe, is that the SEAL vision for the formal teaching of every child (irrespective of need) from the age of 3-18, social and emotional skills (primarily about feelings) in a classroom with a professional, supported by a set of learning outcomes and an evaluation framework  is not a positive one. It is a distraction from the real, cultural challenges to young people’s well-being and, far from simply being a waste of money and time, it may actually make matters worse. This is indeed the real finding from the SEAL primary pilot.  

I concluded my talk yesterday by saying that schools are primarily about education. They should not be exam factories and they should be interested in the development and education of the whole child but this should be done in ways that are relevant to education not therapy, psychology, counselling or mental health work. Of course, children who need this type of support should get it but it should not be norm. If it does then the personalities of future children will be decided and moulded by professionals.

Unfortunately I did not have time yesterday to introduce the ASCL delegates to the Scottish economist John Kay’s great concept of ‘obliquity’. Echoing ancient wisdom he points out that goals are often best achieved through oblique, rather than direct methods’. He thinks we are in danger of forgetting this because we now live in world so dominated by management by objectives and centralised planning. Kay also rightly points out that the dominance of new fangled ideas also means that we are in danger of becoming arrogant and dismissive of traditional approaches. But often the traditional approach has evolved over centuries and contains within it the wisdom of decades if not centuries. Of course, teachers can improve their teaching and should think about adopting new methods. But we need to tread warily with this well-being agenda. What  I would select as the main things schools can do to foster well-being have an oblique, and old fashioned ring – encourage children to play outdoors; allow for more physical activity, music and art; give young people an all round education which encourages them to see all the wonderful experiences life has to offer and really challenges them. In creating a good climate for well-being good schools also reinforce positive ‘pro social values’ have clear rules and boundaries yet nonetheless genuinely respect each young person as an individual. Schools can also encourage well-being by fostering resilience and teaching them about the importance of society - they are not the centre of the universe and life is not all about them and how they feel.

Comment By Comment
Alex Smith

Comment Posted: 16/03/2009 11:51
There is so much in this posting that I could spend a day responding to it. And I don't have a day to spare. I know that, compared to many of visitors to the website, I am old and I am no different from most people in disliking those who constantly harp back to 'the good old days' but I do want to mention a couple of things from my own schooldays from 1953 to 1966.

Not all of my teachers were good - neither as teachers nor as human beings. I can think of at least two, who went on to more senior posts in education, who were sadistic bullies. But most of my teachers were at least competent and a handful were outstanding. None of my teachers felt that it was his or her job to give me psychological counselling. They taught me facts and they taught me to think. They taught me about the world, often obliquely. My fourth year English teacher used Shakepeare, Lawrence and Elliot to make us think about the political and social structures we lived in.

The important thing about my teachers, primary and secondary, is that they were there to teach us English, History, Maths, etc. Our social education, our sexual education were left to our families. I know how poorly my own parents handled my sexual education and there were many like me. So the job was passed to schools. And the result that we have more teenage pregnancies than ever! The more schools are asked to teach things which should be left to the home, the more poorly these topics seem to be handled and the less time there is available to teach the basics. That's why so many people now are functionally illiterate. That's why someone can answer on a TV quiz show the question, 'What is the nationality of the Pope?', 'I think I know that one. Is it Jewish?', or, 'What happened in Dallas on 22 November 1963?', 'I don't know. I wasn't watching it then.'

Teachers need to be given the time and support to go back to TEACHING and to get away from counselling, assessing, box-ticking, etc. Incidentally, when I worked in the Careers Service in the early 1980s, we knew that families were far important than Careers Officers and schools' careers education programmes combined in influencing young people's careers choices. Those who decide what should be taught in schools ought to remember that.
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Joined: 17/03/2009

Comment Posted: 17/03/2009 09:42
There's a characteristically sniffy notice of the speech in Michelle Hanson's blog in today's Guardian, with a strong response to the sniff on the thread.


It is indeed a fine speech. The problem is seen in the TV ads about teaching, which seem to have been done by someone who assumes that Krusty the Klown's view of education - 'hey hey, it's fun, kids!' - is meant to be taken seriously.

There were several magnificent Doonesbury strips in the 80s which made the same points about American education. I particularly remember the Asian child who says to her slack-jawed classmates 'We mean you no harm, we just want computers for our children'

Your book The Scots Crisis of Confidence is absolutely marvellous; wish I'd read it earlier.

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D Armitt
Joined: 16/03/2009

Comment Posted: 18/03/2009 14:15
It is some time since I read an article that provoked so many exclamations of YES, YES, YES. At last someone else thinks the same as me. Im not a redundant professional way past his sell by date.

The difficulty however, when analysing any social failure, is to be able to distinguish the true causes from what may be no more than symptoms of an underlying misconceived government policy or commercial strategy. So, please bear with me on a brief tour of the past twenty years.

During the 1980s business leaders of the time complained that young job applicants were not equipped by their vocational training to immediately turn a profit for their employers; employers who, over the previous twenty years, had declared apprenticeships as too taxing and withdrawn their support. About the same time, a desire emerged to widen the success of students in schools and colleges, in particular to redress a perceived difficulty for some girls and women faced with the stress of examinations. To address the later phenomena modules of continuous assessment were progressively introduced in schools and colleges and it became necessary provide evidence to meet competence based criteria to satisfy the employers. Qualifications, designed by government approved pedagogues or employers representatives, evolved into awards, delivered if performance is demonstrated or occupational standards have been observed. Unfortunately, for my desires for job satisfaction, having (pre New Labour) taught O and A level courses and helped to prepare students for professional examinations, and now having first-hand experience of GCSE, Key Skill Units and NVQs, I remain convinced, like the author of this blog, that education means more than ticking boxes.

Those of us working in public services during the 1980s were possibly amongst the first to be offered the magic wand of transactional analysis; a ten hour alternative to a years study of behavioural psychology. By 1990 neuro-linguistic programming had crossed the Atlantic not only to improve the performance of baseball teams but convince exploited and underpaid employees that their suffering could be cured by an altered perception, or that anyone could become a successful business trainer in three days and then demand three figure fees for one days work.

During the same Thatcher epoch another of the buzzwords was Standards. I remember spending some months researching and drafting the first standards for advice centres; so I have nothing against them as such. What has, unfortunately, got left by the wayside is that the evaluation of any or organisation, its effectiveness, the quality of its services, the safety and well-being offered to those working for it or those for whom it works, depends upon the experience of the inspector in reviewing the organisation as a whole, holistically. Reducing evaluations, whether of health and safety or performance reviews, or even recruitment of staff, to a tick box list is to depreciate the work of those who, during those early years, were seeking to find an effective response to counter the fallibility of human nature.

So, what does this have to do with well-being? Like Alex Smith, I felt Carol Craigs blog left me not knowing where to start. But I will make a try. I dont claim to have any answers but an aspect I feel needs to be explored is that in social policy, including education and health, laudable efforts to make services inclusive and empower people, child-centred learning, citizens as customers of public services and stakeholders of government initiatives, have conveyed the idea that achieving an education, or the benefits of social advances are things that can be caught like influenza, if teachers and civil servants are doing their job properly. Any learning that can not be described as fun is being badly taught. I could not understand why, at an FE college where I recently taught, I was required to make sure I took enough paper, pens, rulers etc.; to every class because the students were not required to provide these for themselves.

So, should we blame the blessed Margaret for centring policy on the individual and making greed respectable? Should we blame the administrators and functionaries who tried to get us to evaluate quality equipped with nothing more than a simplistic empirical tool kit, only to find they had given approval for mediocrity? Or should those of my generation just accept that our post war childhood, during which a combination of fears of punishment and Judaeo-Christian exhortations of right and wrong moderated our behaviour, is now out of date and we should shut up and give the youngsters their own chance to cock things up?

Few teachers want to go back to the days of chalk, talk and corporal punishment, but smaller children usually fare better and learn better when told what to do and what to learn without the burden of long rationalising explanations. I also believe that teenagers, or at least those whose boredom leads to drugs putting themselves at risk or anti-social behaviour putting others at risk, have been failed by the social and political pundits who persuaded us to reject strategies which, often because of fear of the consequences, kept us quiet in the classroom and polite to others in the street or on public transport. I dont claim we were better behaved, just that the rules ensured that most of us were able to benefit from the education on offer.

I think we were less stressed no designer labels so no shame if parents couldnt afford them and happier in the sense of having, for most of the time, despite deprivations, a feeling of well-being. In France, where I was lucky enough to live during the 1990s, they have an expression that translates as feeling good inside your skin. It has little to do with wealth. In fact, too many possessions can spoil this feeling just as readily as not enough. It probably means that you have found a physical and social environment in where you can balance exploiting your knowledge and skills for the benefit of others with pursuing personal interests for the benefit of yourself. There is sufficient time for relaxation and an appropriate balance of social belonging and quiet solitude. There can be painful moments, such as bereavement, but less likely to require post-traumatic stress counselling.

French education is also based on the principle that the teachers are not social workers, know more about education than most parents and that children are happier if they are told how to behave and what to learn and not asked to make choices inappropriate at their stage of intellectual development.

In Britain there is now some questioning of the worth of course-work assignments as a contribution to qualifications and, happily, apprenticeships are back in vogue. There are moves to protect teachers from malicious accusations by aggrieved pupils or parents. But there is little to suggest that pupil behaviour in schools, on public transport or in the street is improving. But as these children have grown up being told by the tabloid media that a pdophile lurks behind every corner, it is not surprising that they dont have much respect for most adults.

I have come to the conclusion that the only place we could start would be to give children back their childhood. It may be too late for some of todays kids but we could offer a better life for many of those born tomorrow. We protect them from inappropriate messages that associate greed or violence with success in the same way we protect them from electrical sockets and speeding vehicles. We accept, whether we like our kids or not, that they did not ask to be born and deserve our best efforts to care for their needs. We accept that we are there for the benefit of the children they it is not their role to stop us feeling lonely. We teach them that, unless having a handicap, to inform themselves about their world they must learn how to listen, how to observe, how to read, and then learn how to talk intelligently, draw and write so they can express themselves and their ideas. We teach them that, whilst some behaviour must be condemned, adults deserve respect, if only because they are usually stronger.

This is the job of the family and, if necessary, society in loco parentis. It is not the job of the education services. Children, unless suffering some emotional disorder, must be socialised before starting school, including playgroups. To be accepted children should be civilised as well as dry.

I wouldnt expect that those behind Sure Start and SEAL see themselves as involved in a secret government plan to brainwash parents into abdicating responsibility for the education of their children in favour of the state but look carefully at the messages and how much money is being spent on the propaganda and its promotion. If it is not a deliberate conspiracy it may be time to back off and use the money to increase child benefit.
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Alex Smith

Comment Posted: 18/03/2009 17:12
D Armitt has written so much more eloquently than I about the reasons I gave up being a Careers Officer and later gave up helping with enterprise education lessons in school. I simply lack the time and the patience to spend an hour (or sometimes two) trying to maintain order and realising that no one learned anything and I had a sore throat. I have only one complaint. NLP has many other uses and many of us who learned and and make use of NLP's skills have never thought of demanding high fees. 100 is a three-figure fee. 100 per day does not seem in any way excessive to me.
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