How to develop wellbeing while schools are in ‘perma-crisis’

Although it might feel like the whole world is in crisis, teachers have to find ways to put pupils’ wellbeing first, says Andy Hargreaves – and we can look to Canadian schools to help us here
26th August 2022, 5:23pm
How to develop wellbeing while schools are in 'perma-crisis'


How to develop wellbeing while schools are in ‘perma-crisis’

Plague; fires; storms; war; inflation; strikes; travel disruptions - it feels like a lot of bad luck. But it’s not, it’s all interconnected.

We are in a perma-crisis. Welcome to VUCA. 

VUCA is an acronym that was first coined by the US military, and later by the field of business to describe circumstances where four conditions apply:

  • Volatility of accelerating change in different directions.
  • Uncertainty of evidence, information and ability to predict the future.
  • Complexity of multiple, interacting forces.
  • Ambiguity regarding what this all means.

We know that VUCA is taking a toll on young people.

In a worldwide survey of 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds, conducted by researchers at the University of Bath, 77 per cent agreed with the statement: “The future is frightening”.

Other research from the Mental Health Foundation found that a quarter of surveyed British teenagers feel anxious most days and have trouble concentrating, while almost a third have trouble sleeping. 

Retreating into virtual space doesn’t help. In 2020, Ofcom found that people spend almost five hours a day on their mobile phones, and the Mental Health Foundation published research which concluded that almost a third of British teenagers feel ashamed of their body with imagery of “idealised” bodies on social media driving their insecurity.

Teachers also feel the pressure.

When the Westminster government wouldn’t collaborate with education professionals about school closures, it threw them from pillar to post. Educators’ stress levels skyrocketed.

By April 2021, 95 per cent of teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were worried about their wellbeing, according to the NEU teaching union. A third planned to leave the profession within five years.

But Covid and VUCA aren’t educators’ only problems. VUCA has an equally evil twin: GERM.

The acronym, GERM, created by Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, describes a Global Education Reform Movement that began in the late 1980s. It comprises:

  • Greater competition within education systems, which drives the need for more accountability and leads to less cooperation between schools.
  • Increased school choice, which positions parents as consumers and further promotes market-style competition.
  • Stronger accountability and more standardised testing, leading to increased pupil anxiety, narrowing of curricula and more teaching to the test.

GERM puts us constantly under control. VUCA makes us feel out of control. It’s no wonder that young people’s wellbeing is plummeting.

Three forces for better wellbeing

All the health and wellness days in the world can’t offset a toxic system. If we want healthier people, we don’t need to give them a few breaks from a bad system. We need a healthier system altogether.

In Wellbeing in Schools, Dennis Shirley and I draw on our research about how schools in Ontario, Canada, have implemented the system’s wellbeing policies. Here’s what we learned.

1. Empower young people to act 

Instead of keeping children calm and carrying on in a state of chaos, schools need to rouse up righteous indignation in the curriculum to empower young people to act and respond to issues like climate change, xenophobia, and threats to democracies.

For example, when Canada’s capital, Ottawa, was occupied for three weeks by protesters earlier this year, my 7-year-old twin granddaughters and their classmates interviewed each other about how they were perceiving it.  

Wellbeing shouldn’t be an offset for an over-tested GERM-ridden curriculum that causes ill-being. It should help young people thrive by making learning meaningful and purposeful in relation to the world around them.

2. Identify and mitigate digital risks

Wellbeing strategies must take on the risks and not just take up the benefits of digital learning in a VUCA world. My colleagues and I have created a charter to help every school and school system identify and mitigate digital risks.

Every school should have a team that identifies and manages digital risks such as excess screen time, digital addiction, online image enhancement, algorithms that reinforce prejudices as well as preferences, and displacement of other valuable learning activities.

3. Get children outdoors 

There are endless drives to get students on devices more, but less momentum to get them outdoors.

Author Richard Louv argues that too much test preparation and excess screen time are giving kids ”nature deficit disorder”. Physical fitness and movement improve learning and wellbeing. Pupils who learn outdoors in nature are more likely to become stewards of the environment. Learning outdoors connects us to our ancient heritages. It can also bestow feelings of awe about something greater than ourselves.

The Canadian province of Nova Scotia has committed millions of dollars to ensure every school has an outdoor learning (not just playing) space. Scotland has also made huge strides in providing more learning outdoors as an everyday part of school life.


Like tectonic plates moving towards each other, VUCA and GERM can crush our spirit. But they can also create uplifting alternatives we had not considered before.

This is not a time to add on extra wellbeing initiatives to unchanged systems that are making everyone sick and tired.

Instead, as we head back to school, we can and must commit to a purposeful and empowering curriculum, act ethically in relation to digital risks, and get everyone outside more, away from their screens, wherever we can.

Andy Hargreaves is a researcher, writer, change agent, speaker, and public intellectual. He is director of Chenine (Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa, a research professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, and an honorary professor at Swansea University in the UK. 

This article is based on Professor Hargreaves’ address to the Association of Education Advisors, in York, on July 15, the same day he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bolton

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