Tes focus on…Should schools teach students how to be happy?

Teachers are supposed to focus on grades, but should their priority instead be to make students feel good? Economist Richard Layard tells Simon Creasey why he believes the two aims aren’t mutually exclusive and why giving children regular contentment classes could have a lasting impact beyond the school gates
7th February 2020, 12:04am
Tes Focus On... Happiness Lessons
Simon Creasey


Tes focus on…Should schools teach students how to be happy?


Think of the 30 children sitting in your class: how many of them would you say are happy? It's not a question you will often be asked. How are they progressing? How much are they learning? Are they on track? Are their any safeguarding concerns? These bases are all regularly covered. But not happiness. Is it even a teacher's job to make a child happy?

Professor Lord Richard Layard thinks so. The esteemed British economist - currently programme director for wellbeing at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics - believes that a nation's happiness levels are a better measure of its success than economic indicators such as GDP.

He has even created his own "happiness principle", extolling the virtues of people being happier, which he outlines in his new book Can We Be Happier? Evidence and ethics. And he thinks that schools and teachers play a huge role in helping to create happy children who will go on to become happy adults.

Layard first outlined his views on happiness in his book Happiness: lessons from a new science. He later went on to co-found the World Happiness Report, which feeds back annually to the United Nations on how happiness is developing in each nation worldwide and why.

'Happiness is teachable'

The role of schools in the happiness process was something Layard recognised after meeting Sir Anthony Seldon, then head of Wellington College (and now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham).

"At that point, he [Seldon] had just introduced happiness lessons into the school, which was a brave thing to do because he faced a lot of criticism from his staff and parents," recalls Layard.

"However, it turned out very well. The school became a much happier place and, incidentally, at the same time delivered better exam results - because people do better at everything if they're happy."

Layard and Seldon had an immediate rapport and the duo eventually teamed up with Geoff Mulgan - who was director of policy for Tony Blair when he was prime minister - to launch the Action for Happiness movement, which, today, has more than one million followers online and 150,000 members in 180 countries.

"We were both saying the same thing: to have a happier society, people have got to learn the right lessons about how to make themselves happier and how to make other people happier, and the connection between making other people happy and becoming happier, and these are teachable things," says Layard.

"So, people can learn the secrets of happiness by having them repeatedly discussed in a 'drip, drip' fashion, most obviously in the general ethos of a school but also in specific lessons."

Indeed, Layard believes the major goal of every school should be the happiness of the children who attend it, because evidence suggests that happy children will typically go on to be happy adults. And while some have argued that better grades bring better life prospects and thus more happiness, Layard sees it another way.

"If you want to predict whether a child will develop into a happy adult, how happy they are as a child is a better predictor than what grades they get," he explains. "So, schools had better focus on that as an important objective if we want to have a better society."

He cites the findings of a longitudinal study carried out in Bristol, which questioned, on an annual basis, children born in 1991-92 about a number of different things, including their happiness levels. The researchers also gathered information about the children's parents, and the primary and secondary schools they attended.

"If you measure the happiness of children at 16, it's still affected by which primary school they went to. And, in fact, it's even affected by which teacher they had," says Layard.

"We can trace through the influence of individual teachers when the children were in primary school on their later life and their later success. So, teachers have almost as much of an effect in explaining the variation of the happiness of children as in explaining the variation in grades of children, and education has a huge role to play in generating a happy society."

Two-pronged approach

If you buy into this argument, how exactly do you teach happiness?

Layard thinks there are two key prongs to this. First, he believes all schools need to introduce a wellbeing code. "This is about more than just bullying," he says. "It's about how everybody should try to conduct themselves in their relations with other people. So, not just how teachers should behave to each other and to the children but how the children should behave to each other and how the parents should relate to what the school is trying to do."

The second prong is the introduction of weekly wellbeing lessons. Layard says there is now a "mass of evidence" about the sorts of things that teachers can do in a classroom to help children learn the secrets of happiness.

"I spent a lot of time on this and I'm very keen on having an evidence-based weekly curriculum on wellbeing right through school life, from beginning to end," he says

Layard scoured the world for best practice wellbeing techniques and put them into a "coherent" weekly curriculum, targeted at 11- to 15-year-olds, covering areas such as parenting, mindfulness and managing your individual relationship with social media.

The result is the Healthy Minds curriculum, developed in partnership with Hertfordshire-based charity Bounce Forward, which is dedicated to the personal development of students. Examples of modules include:

Does it work? It has already been rolled out across 26 UK schools over a four-year period. Students completed a detailed wellbeing questionnaire before the course and then again four years later. Layard says the findings, which he details in his new book, show that the course had a "powerful influence" on the children.

"On the primary outcome (global health), they improved by 10 percentage points, with a similar result for physical health," he reveals. "And on life satisfaction and behaviour, they improved by 7 percentage points."

Layard adds that it takes five days to train a teacher to use one year's worth of teaching material from the Healthy Minds curriculum, but he stresses that the course has to be implemented correctly for it to make a difference. He cites the experience of the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme, introduced by the last Labour government, which provided plenty of materials but wasn't structured appropriately.

"It didn't provide any teaching programmes to go with the materials and it was not very successful," says Layard. "This has got to be taken seriously, with teachers trained to use good materials, which we know will make a difference to children."

His hope is that the Healthy Minds curriculum will ultimately be adopted by all UK schools, and he was buoyed by the government's recent decision to make the teaching of relationships, sex and mental health education mandatory from September (look out for next week's Tes special issue on how to teach the new SRE curriculum).

"That's something many of us have been campaigning for for a long time and it's finally happened, which I think reflects the fact that this is much more in the public debate now - partly because the public are really interested in that aspect of the development of their children, and worried about it in many cases, but also people are now more aware there are things that you can do and we have the proper evidence base behind it," says Layard.

"It's no longer just about relying on the inspirational teacher somehow finding a way of communicating these truths to children, which is not a very reliable basis for this thing happening on a large scale."

Turning frowns upside-down

As much as Layard believes in the power of everything outlined above, he thinks that hurdles will have to be removed before we can really make a difference.

"We need to get away from league tables," he says. "The idea that people are not going to do a good job unless they are constantly in a competitive atmosphere is simply contrary to the evidence.

"The most successful countries educationally don't have anything like league tables - I'm thinking of Finland, for example. You can do extremely well without a league table if you have well-trained teachers and a highly motivated workforce, and you have a society in which education is valued."

At the moment, Layard believes the UK's education system and its reliance on the outcome of exams negatively impacts on the wellbeing of children and creates anxiety.

"This is very much driven by the league table, which puts a lot of pressure on the headteacher and teachers, who then put a lot of pressure on the children," he says. "Obviously some pressure is coming from the parents, but I think more pressure is coming from the teachers, and this is not what education is about."

So, what does Layard think education should be for?

"Education is about people wanting to understand the world and learn things that can be useful to them in the future," he says. "They should enjoy doing that and get into the habit of doing it throughout their lives."

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Happiness lessons"

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