Consultation closes tomorrow on Junior Cycle Wellbeing . The only way I was aware of this consultation was its appearance in my Twitter feed. The document is an interesting read and I urge to you to have a look and respond.
I’m in favour of academic learning, but the document is quick to reassure me that this doesn’t mean I can’t also be in favour of Wellbeing with a capital W. This is both a new “area of learning”, allotted a whopping 400 hours of school time (to put this in context Maths and English get 240 hours each), and a set of guidelines on how schools should be run. The introduction quotes from Katherine Weare’s 2000 book “Promoting Mental, Emotional and Social Health: A Whole School Approach”.
“It is vital that those who seek to promote high academic standards and those who see to promote mental, emotional and social health realise that they are on the same side, and that social and affective education can support academic learning, not simply take time away from it. There is overwhelming evidence that students learn more effectively, including their academic subjects , if they are happy in their work, believe in themselves, their teacher and feel school is supporting them.”
I would like to challenge the notion that we are “on the same side”. I have not read Weare’s book so cannot comment on the “overwhelming evidence”, but let’s start by conceding that it’s true, or at least that it’s not implausible. Children do learn better when they’re “happy in their work”, have self-belief and feel supported by staff and the overall school. Let’s say I accept all that is true. But it does not follow that I am thus “on the same side” as those advocating and planning to devote swathes of class contact time to mental, emotional and social health promotion. I’d say I was on the opposite side, because what there doesn’t seem to be “overwhelming evidence” for is that directly teaching and promoting mental health leads to children who are “happy in their work”. In fact, I’d say the prerequisite for having children who are happy in their work is that they have actual work to engage in and being the passive recipients of awareness-raising and promotional activities is not work.
The aims of happy, confident children who feel supported on a personal and institutional level are worthy aims of any school. How well these are met comes down largely to the personal relationship between a child and his teachers, and between the child and the overall way his school is run. The extent to which these relationships can be engineered through remote departmental policy is limited. And calling these aims an “area of learning” and setting up a pseudo-subject, complete with learning objectives and assessment criteria, is not supporting children in their learning and will do nothing for their self-belief, confidence or happiness.
What the consultative policy document actually does is provide a charter for “progressive education”. It is incredibly far-reaching, covering topics such as discipline, assessment, pedagogical approaches, student voice, staff development, sustainable development and timetabling. It is quite clear in insisting “the Well-being indicators should inform all planning.” By gathering the progressive ends of thinking in these areas together, the Junior Cycle team are attempting to legitimise them as being beneficial to children’s health, particularly their mental health. It is hard to see how this is justified unless there are teaching methods and forms of assessment that do pose a threat to mental health. There are people who believe learning facts and taking tests damages the brain but such fears do not stand up to scrutiny.
The consultation document advocates that school should endeavour to be “a more democratic learning environment in which students have a voice” and that children be consulted when “policies are being developed, implemented ore reviewed”. It recommends that
“students and teachers engage in ongoing dialogue about learning, teaching and assessment. These conversations can have significant benefits for student wellbeing. By engaging in authentic listening to students at both whole school and classroom level, the school is recognising students as experts in their own learning and hearing what it is like to be a student in the school.” [italics mine]
It goes on “Teaching and learning that is supportive of student well-being is democratic…engages students through the use of a variety of approaches including active, co-operative and peer learning, takes account of the diverse needs and learning approaches of students.” [italics mine] This implies that if, as a teacher, you do not take account of the “diverse learning approaches of students” you are failing to protect their well-being. They will be unhappy in whatever little work they might actually do doing, feel unsupported and make begin to doubt themselves.
On assessment, there is no specific mention of AfL, but the authors seem fairly definite that formative assessment is not just a miracle when it comes to learning, it is also has hitherto unseen health benefits. The one thing assessment must avoid doing is any kind of measurement of what students have learned. And we must be careful not to test them too much: “it is important to consider the volume of assessment activities that students are faced with. This can act as a considerable source of stress, especially when assessment is almost exclusively associated with testing, marking and grading”. Never mind the considerable evidence for the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing to learning, or the reality, as Carl Hendrick writes here, that this kind of stress is not harmful to anyone’s mental health.
Now you might think that one aspect of making pupils feel supported by their school would be a strong behaviour policy with high expectations and the reinforcement of adult authority. School principals recognise this: “The policy that school leaders tend to identify as being most important for student wellbeing is the behaviour policy”. This makes sense, as the behaviour policy goes a long way towards pupils feeling safe in school, and towards enabling a classroom atmosphere of work and concentration. How can children feel “happy in their work” if that work is being disrupted by their peers?
The document is full of impressive footnotes but the most outrageous assertion of all is supported only by the preface “Research shows”, with no citation whatsoever. “Research shows that in schools where student wellbeing is optimised, supportive rather than punitive approaches to behaviour are adopted.” Firstly, the opposition between “supportive” and “punitive” is completely false, unless they’re suggesting children be supported to behave badly. Sanctions for poor behaviour are an essential part of any workable behaviour policy, although they are of course, only a part and not the whole. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale. Or be an educationalist. Even when it comes to behaviour management, adult authority is undermined as the policy checklist includes “Do students have a voice?” It says “Policy development, in support of wellbeing, should be a collaborative, inclusive and democratic process.” It goes on to say such policies “might be easier to implement”. Of course they would, if the student referendum on detention swings towards “Out”. But it won’t make the job of teachers any easier, or protect pupils at risk of bullying, or promote the right of all in the school community to a safe and dignified environment.
I have focused here more on the practical implications of the consultation document – how it aligns teaching, assessment and discipline with progressive ideology – and its lack of appreciation for the role of adult authority in making schools safe, productive places of learning. The introduction of “Wellbeing” will indeed, take time away from the classroom contact time that pupils need to develop as learners and to gain academic confidence. It will replace SPHE, CSPE and PE. The combined time allocation for these is currently c. 280 hours. Well-being will take up a mandatory 400 hours. If you are an English teacher, or a Maths teacher, think how even twenty of those 120 hours would make covering the new, longer courses a more efficient and enriching experience. If you teach a modern foreign language, ask how you feel about this non-subject being allocated exactly twice the time you have been given to open children’s minds to a new culture and to help them acquire oral and written proficiency in its language.
There are deeper issues at play here around the adoption this represents of “therapeutic education”, that is the acceptance that there is an epidemic of mental illness, that all teenagers are vulnerable when it comes to mental health, and that it is necessary to requisition the education system to provide (often prophylactic) classroom-based psychotherapy, even if that means young people leaving school knowing less. I am not denying that there are schoolchildren, particularly at second level, who are struggling with mental health problems. How schools support liaise with CAMHS and support these students on a personal level, is a worthy subject for discussion. I support the reinstatement of guidance counselling hours. Guidance counsellors provide an essential service as informal listening within a non-clinical setting is often enough to relieve what can seem to a naïve teenager to be an unsurmountable issue, and with less access to this (combined with ever-increasing “awareness”) more and more children are joining the long queue for intervention. However, we should remember that the business of schools remains education, that the job of the teacher is to impart knowledge and that while adolescence can be fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, most children derive no benefit from “the curriculum of the self” and may even be harmed by it.
The phrase “the curriculum of the self” comes from Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes’ excellent 2009 book “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”. Far from developing resilience, Ecclestone and Hayes argue that classes where children focus on their own emotional well-being encourages them “to come to terms with being a feeble, vulnerable subject and then to allow the state to coach the appropriate dispositions and attitudes of the emotionally well citizen.” They propose instead a radical, humanist curriculum where pupils are encouraged to look outward to the wider world (including the world of the past) beyond their immediate experience.
It seems just another cheesy educational quote, but Sydney J Harris was correct when he said that “The purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows”. Turning their own well-being and their own preoccupations into a quasi-subject is letting our pupils down. It invites those who are already (often painfully) self-absorbed to look into full-length, wrap-around mirrors and includes the magnifying lens of asking teenagers to assess their own well-being, “mindsets” and coping skills. The document does not put forward evidence that increasing classroom instruction on “learning about well-being” will result in better health outcomes, on any measure. Rather it is justified on the basis of “making commitment to well-being visible”. If you are a child (or the child’s parent) and the main indication that your school cares about your well-being is that it’s written on your timetable, then I’m not sure you know that they care.
Let’s embed children’s well-being and welfare at the heart of our school culture. Let’s think about how we can foster good working relationships with pupils, remembering that such relationships are enhanced when adults are not afraid to exercise authority. Let’s focus on teaching well so pupils feel a sense of achievement and control. But let’s not bow to the lifestyle-supplement Zeitgeist that puts looking into mental and physical mirrors above learning, creating and connecting. Let’s keep opening windows and inviting young people to look out at what awaits them.
The link to the consultation document is here, and it is open “until the end of June”.