Social injustice?

Programmes focused on social and emotional learning have long-lasting benefits for young people’s mental health and academic progress, according to research. In particular, SEL has been shown to have a positive impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But do all students have equal access to this type of learning? Or is it the preserve of the privileged few? Christina Quaine investigates
26th October 2018, 12:00am
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Christina Quaine


Social injustice?

It's a gloriously sunny day in Wiltshire and students on the Open Minds summer school programme at Marlborough College are taking tea on the lawn during their morning break.

Open Minds is a residential programme that aims to develop teenagers' self-awareness and help them to think outside of their own sphere of existence. Most of the students come from privileged backgrounds - Marlborough is an independent school and its residential summer schemes do not come cheap - but this year the intake includes several teenagers with very different roots: refugees from Syria, Guinea and Eritrea.

The thinking is that by making the scheme more inclusive, all those attending will benefit, as it will open up new opportunities to explore concepts of power and privilege and allow them to think about global issues from multiple perspectives - while providing a valuable learning experience to children from refugee backgrounds, which they wouldn't otherwise have access to.

Programmes such as this one, designed to offer a more "well-rounded" education by developing students' social and emotional intelligence, are nothing new. The term "emotional intelligence" was popularised by journalist Daniel Goleman in 1995, through his book Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ, and research around social and emotional learning (SEL) has been going from strength to strength ever since.

But who are the existing programmes really helping? Has teaching about self-awareness become the preserve of the most privileged, or is it something that all schools can make space for?

Sam Ponsford is the director of the School of English and Culture at Marlborough College, and the man behind Open Minds. He developed the course out of a belief that something is currently lacking in how young people are learning to interact with one another.

"The original idea was based around my feeling that, as a society, we no longer know how to talk to each other in a reasonable way; we seem unable to understand each other's points of view," he says. "Conversation and debate has become polarised and that's partly thanks to social media. Conversations that should be based on mutual understanding are distilled into insults, with people doubling down on their views. Open Minds is about encouraging teenagers to step outside of their assumed belief systems and look at the world from other perspectives."

So far, the course has proved popular. The first Open Minds programme ran last year and this year's course attracted about 50 students from around the globe.

The young people, aged 13 to 17, complete either two modules over two weeks or four modules in a four-week period. Themes explored range from the way in which stories from different cultures help to mould different world views, to how mental health is portrayed in culture. Throughout the modules, issues around privilege and inequality are addressed head-on.

Take this example of an exercise being used in the course: pupils are asked to close their eyes and stand in a line. They are then instructed to take steps forwards or backwards depending on whether or not they agree with statements read out to them, such as, "my parents went to college", "I feel safe when I walk around the town I live in" or "I have felt threatened because of my sexuality".

At the end of the activity, pupils are asked to open their eyes and to silently observe the disparities in their relative positions. The group then comes together to consider how circumstances can affect life chances.

This might all sound very worthwhile, but is there any proof that activities like this one work? While Open Minds is still only in its second year and Ponsford has yet to gather any quantitative data on outcomes, he says that qualitative data from exit interviews and his own observations of the students have been very encouraging, suggesting that the course is having a positive effect on levels of empathy and social and emotional understanding.

Should we simply take Ponsford's word that these programmes are effective? We don't need to; there is already a robust body of research to support the value of SEL.

The US-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been carrying out research to build an evidence base for SEL since the mid-1990s, and effective teaching of the five core competencies that make up SEL (according to CASEL) - self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making - have repeatedly been shown to have long-lasting benefits.

Take, for instance, a 2017 meta-analysis of 82 research studies, involving about 100,000 students, conducted by CASEL, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University Chicago and the University of British Columbia. This found that not only does participation in SEL programmes improve students' mental health, social skills and academic achievement immediately, the benefits also continue into later life. Up to 18 years later, students who were exposed to SEL in school continued to do better than their peers based on a number of indicators, including positive social behaviours, levels of empathy and teamwork skills. These students also displayed fewer conduct problems and reported lower levels of emotional distress.

In addition, in the UK, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit states that "on average, SEL interventions have an identifiable and valuable impact on attitudes to learning and social relationships in school. They also have an average overall impact of four months' additional progress on attainment".

Life lessons

So there is strong evidence that SEL has positive effects. Why, then, aren't more schools running programmes like Marlborough's? Well, in fact, they are: Marlborough is not the only independent school to have picked up on the value of SEL. One other example is Bedales School in Hampshire, which offers an optional Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) in "global awareness" - one of a series of courses that key stage 4 students must choose from to study alongside five compulsory GCSEs.

The course encourages pupils to apply "21st-century skills" to understanding and addressing global issues, such as poverty, equality, social justice and human rights. When it was first introduced to the curriculum in 2016, half of all students opted to study it, making it the most popular BAC on offer.

Course leader Abi Wharton believes that the course helps students to develop crucial citizenship skills. "If, as appears to be the case, we are on the cusp of the voting age being lowered universally, then we need to ensure that our young people have enough knowledge about the world to use this vote appropriately," she says. "The global awareness BAC has begun the task of helping our students towards a meaningful and practical education in citizenship and the sense that they can change the world in which they live."

Similarly, Year 10 and 11 students at Latymer Upper School, an independent school in Hammersmith, West London, take a Ucas-accredited GCSE in "world perspectives", which was added to the timetable in 2010. Pupils study worldwide issues, ranging from terrorism and counter-terrorism to sustainability and the economics of inequality.

"We want our students to make sense of the wider world and different value systems, helping them to think through global issues and come to their own conclusions," says headteacher David Goodhew. "The feedback from parents and pupils is that kids are going home and having intelligent conversations with their parents over the dinner table about what they've seen in the news. Students tell us that they like having freedom with their ideas in those lessons - the fact that they can freely express and question their opinions, and hear other views, even if they disagree with them."

You will have noticed that all of the aforementioned schools are fee-paying. This is because, if you search for prominent SEL programmes, it is the independent sector that seems to come up time and time again - as it is those schools that run them discreetly and that shout loudest about them. Are state schools just being shy about promoting their programmes, are they being overlooked, or is SEL simply not a priority in these schools?

The evidence suggests they certainly should be a priority. According to the EEF, "SEL programmes appear to be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged or low-attaining pupils". CASEL, meanwhile, reports that, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, there are "statistically significant associations" between students being taught SEL skills in kindergarten and reductions in the likelihood of them going on to live in or be on the waiting list for public housing; receive public assistance; have any involvement with police before adulthood or ever spend time in a detention facility - all factors that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are already disproportionately affected by.

So, are the children most in-need of this education getting it? A 2015 report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission into SEL provision suggested that they might not be. It found that provision across the UK was patchy.

"Currently, social and emotional learning provision is hugely variable in the youth and education sectors, meaning that some children and young people receive it and some do not," the report stated.

With no existing statutory approach to SEL in the UK and little funding available, improving provision for all will be a challenge. Any attempt at introducing a universal SEL curriculum would be complex. To start with, it is tricky to draw true comparisons between individual programmes, because SEL is such a broad area, covering a range of different skills. Identifying the right approach to roll out across the country would not be easy. And even if a single statutory programme were to be introduced, there could still be difficulties.

When a universal scheme was previously rolled out to state schools in 2007 - in the form of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme as part of the National Strategies - it was found to have very mixed results. An evaluation of the programme concluded: "SEAL (as implemented by schools in our sample) failed to impact significantly upon pupils' social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour or behaviour problems." The reason for these results was believed to be inconsistent implementation of the programme: the researchers cited the "will and skill" of teaching staff, as well as a lack of time and resource allocation needed to make the scheme a success.

Without dedicated time and resource, then, it is likely that a single national approach would not succeed.

Yet none of this is to say that there aren't already state schools providing SEL, or that those schools are not doing it well. For instance, Brighton Hill Community School, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, delivers SEL through its PSHE programme, which is taught in a structured way during tutor time.

"Social and emotional learning is a very important part of the broader curriculum we are aiming to deliver this year," says Clare Roberts, the school's lead on whole-school mental wellbeing. "We have dedicated time in the morning and afternoon, which totals 40 minutes a day - five days a week - where the students are with their tutor and where within the PSHE curriculum delivered we are weaving in aspects of social and emotional learning, too. It's imperative we recognise that progress is not just about academic progress but also about the pastoral and social and emotional learning taking place."

In addition, she says, the school holds awards ceremonies in assemblies and at the end of the year to recognise students who have shown progress in developing character traits such as resilience, honesty, integrity and leadership.

Similarly, Redbridge Primary School, in the East London borough of Redbridge, delivers SEL as an integrated part of programmes of study, through its Creative Curriculum, which has a specific focus on SEL, and the school also has an assistant head with specific responsibility for children's emotional wellbeing.

"I believe that a consideration of children's social and emotional development should be at the centre of all aspects of the teaching curriculum," says executive headteacher Kulvarn Atwal. "By that, I mean we should evaluate all aspects of our curriculum, and teaching and learning, in terms of the associated positive impact on children's social and emotional learning and development."

So SEL does have a presence in the state sector but, as Atwal points out, the quality of provision is currently reliant on individual school leaders taking a specific interest in the subject. Beyond the PSHE curriculum (which is non-statutory), Atwal argues, "the national curriculum has insufficient focus on emotional and social development".

This means that the onus for delivering robust SEL is placed entirely on schools, which arguably explains why teaching can be inconsistent. Even with the best will in the world, if SEL is only delivered through a wider PSHE programme - which is not assessed and is often taught by teachers not specifically trained to teach it - provision is unlikely to be as strong as it could be.

Christian Pountain, head of RE and director of spirituality at a secondary school in Lancashire that already takes a structured approach to SEL, agrees that there is still more to do to in this area.

"The context at my school is quite interesting in that we are a faith school, and, especially given my role of having oversight of the worship programme, I'd like to think we address many aspects of social and emotional learning through our form time programme," he says. "[But] the truth here is that we are a bit hit and miss really, and some staff are stronger than others. At our last inspection, we were deemed 'outstanding' for pupil wellbeing and behaviour, so we must be doing something right, but I fear this is more by default rather than design."

Furthermore, Pountain worries that, as long as SEL remains non-statutory, the disparities in provision between schools will remain. "As is often the case, anything that does not have a statutory element to it is often the poor relation in the classroom because of the pressure staff perceive themselves to be under," he says.

Bridging the gap

There are currently no specific plans to make SEL statutory. Does this mean that we will continue to see inequality between those schools with the budget and freedom to create bespoke courses targeting these skills and those that do not? Quite possibly.

For his part, Ponsford is taking his own steps to redress the balance, through opening up Open Minds to scholarship students for the first time. This allows him to offer the provision to some of those students who research suggests have the most to gain from it. "This year, we were able to offer places on the course to four refugees. They were incredible, such a positive, balancing voice amongst the student group," he says.

Next year Open Minds will once again take refugee students and Ponsford also hopes to offer bursaries to underprivileged children from the local area in Wiltshire. "Each year, we want to chip away at the diversity issue and make Open Minds more accessible," he says.

And while every student would ideally have access to well-structured SEL provision, perhaps there is yet another angle to this debate. Could there be an argument to be made that programmes such as Marlborough's - which help students from the wealthiest backgrounds to become more self-aware through recognising the structures of privilege and empathising with those who are less fortunate than themselves - might potentially already be benefitting society as a whole?

Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of Sutton Trust, the educational charity that works to improve social mobility, is cautious about welcoming such courses. "Social mobility is lower in the UK than in many other countries. Even if you have talent, your chances of climbing the ladder are much lower if you're from a low-income background, and one of the factors driving that is that we have a very detached elite which exists in a bubble," he says. "These courses are potentially quite positive and I do think there should be something like this, but I'd want to see the proof that they actually work."

Similarly, Lee Anne Bell, a former professor of education at Barnard College in New York and co-author of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, also sees the validity in this argument. She believes that teaching self-awareness is crucial - particularly for young people who come from wealthy families. "It's about understanding injustice, and their own positioning within systems of injustice, so that they can develop the skills, ability, empathy and knowledge to work for a more just world in a way that doesn't enforce dominance and subordinance," she says.

"There's a challenge there but there's also tremendous opportunity. These are young people who are very likely to be in positions of power and authority and what their consciousness is and recognition is of injustice, and their own place in it, is really important. But that's the challenge. How do you help them develop knowledge of how the world operates outside of the bubble they may live in? And how do they come to understand their own implications in systems of injustice? Not conscious or deliberate, but if they want to work towards justice and change, they have to understand that."

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

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