It shouldn’t be one or the other: why wellbeing *and* academic success should be considered together

20th February 2013

During a recent Nesta event, Yvonne Roberts, stated that we aren’t focusing on what’s ‘important’ in education and that primarily, education should exist to ‘make young people feel good about themselves’. As author of a report for The Young Foundation entitled ‘Grit: The Skills for Success and How They Are Grown’, what she considered to be important is developing skills such as grit, resilience, critical thinking and emotional intelligence; she also argues that these skills are less likely to be found in disadvantaged young people thereby hindering social mobility.

These are timely comments as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility have recently held a Character and Wellbeing Summit that sought to address how we develop wellbeing in young people, particularly those that are disadvantaged. Whilst I agree that a focus on developing wellbeing is important, Roberts’ assertion that schools aren’t focusing on what’s important is unhelpful: academic success is a crucial part of education and developing this as well as wellbeing is the key to social mobility. Without the qualifications that give young people the freedom to choose their destiny, their wellbeing is also dramatically curtailed. Therefore in order for education to fully prepare students for a successful transition into adulthood they need both good qualifications and a strong sense of wellbeing. Later on, I provide practical examples of a school doing exactly this: the Greenwich Free School.

Research recently released from The Prince’s Trust indicates the impact of poor experiences of education and employment:‘less affluent youngsters were around twice as likely to feel they had “already failed in life” if they failed an exam or were turned down for a job’.The 2013 Prince’s Trust report found that 48% of NEET youngsters “always” or “often feel depressed” compared with 27% of young people in work. In addition, the 2012 Prince’s Trust report also found that one in three young people who failed to get 5A*-Cs said they “always” or “often” feel rejected compared with one in five amongst their peers. Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint whether their lack of confidence and happiness caused their academic failure and NEET status or vice versa, what is clear is that young people lacking qualifications and subsequent training or employment are more likely to suffer feelings of low self-worth. Therefore we need to prepare them academically for further study and eventual employment whilst also developing their overall wellbeing.

One school that links student wellbeing to learning particularly well is the Greenwich Free School: they link the values of growth, fellowship and scholarship together. They use the Penn Resilience Programme, a wellbeing programme evaluated by the DfE and found to have clear positive outcomes on mental wellbeing, resilience and literacy. They teach it explicitly in one 30 minute tutor time a week and then teachers refer to the skills throughout academic lessons: students are continually reflecting on which skills are most helpful to them in different situations. For example, at the start of year 7, the cohort has a week-long residential trip where they have to overcome a series of challenges. For some schools, this might tick the ‘personal and social wellbeing’ box with the skills forgotten about on return to school. However, at GFS, the values developed on the residential are evaluated by the pupils and teachers refer back to which skills will help them succeed at tasks when back in the classroom. When one student was asked whether she felt the residential had helped in her learning, she replied that the ability to overcome challenges was particularly helpful in a subject like maths, where previously she would have given up too quickly.

Additionally, meta-cognitive skills (which are proven to impact on learning as researched by The Sutton Trust and resourced by the Education Endowment Fund) are developed through cross curricula projects taught by subject specialists. These included a maths and philosophy project on Artificial Intelligence where students developed their own models of intelligence. What was evident during my visit was the genuine delight students take in developing a range of meta-cognitive skills and applying them to different areas of their learning.

Lastly, GFS have an extended school day which incorporates more time for curriculum, homework and extra-curricular activities. This additional time means they can have a whole day of extra-curricular activity every fortnight, allowing for culturally enriching activities such as their own Eisteddfod or trips to museums. The approach to homework also cultivates independence: students have formulated their own project titles with careful guidance from their form tutor and are now busily researching, reviewing and writing them up under supervision. Previously, I have only seen this level of independence developed in sixth form students carrying out an Extended Project. By scaffolding their learning in this way, students are developing ownership and taking a lead in their studies, skills that will hold them in excellent stead as they move towards university.

During my visit to GFS I was impressed with how effectively they had combined student well-being and excellent standards of teaching and learning; there was a real buzz around both lessons and extra-curricular activities. When questioned, Deputy Head, Sarah Jones, offered: ‘We always wanted a strong focus on wellbeing as well as academic excellence. It’s certainly led to something quite magic going on here.’ And she’s right – it’s rare to step into a school and be immediately struck by such a positive atmosphere.

Chris Husbands, Director of The Institute of Education, is quoted in Roberts’ report as stating that most teachers recognise that ‘a child’s social and emotional condition is the key to his or her ability to learn’ and I couldn’t agree more. Low self-belief and resilience can lead students to give up at the first sign of challenge in their learning. However, if we consider the flip side of this statement, students’ learning also has the capacity to improve their social and emotional condition. In fact, it’s time to stop viewing wellbeing and academic success as separate entities; in order to ensure the success of our young people both areas need to be developed, just as they are doing at Greenwich Free School. I highly recommend a trip to see the ‘magic’ for yourselves: it really is quite the inspiring experience.