'Happy pupils perform better in school and in life'

It's time for a shift in priorities: one of the aims of education must be to ensure pupils flourish, says Mike Buchanan

Mike Buchanan

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What do JFK, cowboys and positive psychology have in common? They are colliding spectacularly in Texas this week at the second World Positive Education Accelerator. This is bringing together academics, researchers, teachers, school leaders, students and policymakers from all over the world who are being provoked into action by the gurus of Positive Psychology, from Marty Seligman, David Cooperider and Angela Duckworth to Sir Anthony Seldon, under the banner of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN). 

Policymakers and politicians, take note: striving to address the long tail of underachievement amongst young people in England by focusing primarily on academic attainment risks missing out on pulling a key lever of change. 

Fact: positive education and wellbeing support learning. They ought to sit alongside maximising pupils’ achievements as strategic aims in our schools and the education systems in the UK. Not to have wellbeing as an explicit metric alongside others is to ignore the already decades-strong and growing body of evidence from around the world which is being presented here in Texas. Given this, it is remarkable that there is no such metric for schools in the UK.

Wellbeing and happiness have such a bad name in education circles. “Happy, flappy claptrap. Come on!" “Get real. Life is stressful and you just have to get used to it.” “Kids need great exam results, not happiness.” “Yes, it’s important but not as important as exam outcomes.” “It’s too hard to do and too hard to measure.” And yet in the corporate world, wellbeing is rapidly being recognised as a vital component in the lives of employees.

'A culture shift in behaviours'

Well, the tsunami of positive psychology is building through the IPEN family, and this comes at a critical time for schools and, more importantly, young people. Too often we are reading about the increasingly poor mental health of teenagers and young adults in our schools and universities and the latest initiative designed to address the symptoms. This is a deficit model of policymaking. It’s short-term and mostly ineffective. We need to be bolder and more courageous.

Intuitively, as any parent knows, and evidentially, children learn more effectively when their emotional needs are met. Happy, safe learners have better outcomes in school and in life; if you wish to be reductive, they are greater economic contributors. Young people are starving for the knowledge of how to live bold, compassionate and meaningful lives and yet we emphasise the gruel of exams as the way to success. It doesn’t have to be this way; it mustn’t be this way. 

Yes, hard work is required to be successful; yes, exams are vital passports; no, purpose and meaning in life do not come from having a clutch of GCSEs or their equivalents. I know this, you know this, parents know this and even policymakers know this, so why do we persist in only using one policy tool when there is another to complement it and amplify its impact?

What might happen if one of the key aims of our education system and of schools, alongside academic attainment, was to enable children and young people to flourish; to understand how they might live meaningful, purposeful, fulfilled lives and the components that lead to those outcomes? I don’t mean yet another programme to be squeezed into an already overcrowded curriculum but a culture shift of behaviours, attitudes, emphases and vision led from the top of the policy tree.

It’s not hard to imagine that such a shift might have a mitigating impact on the levels of unhealthy stress and poor mental health experienced by thousands of pupils in our schools, and the economic and social benefits that might bring. It’s not hard to imagine that pupils might be more actively engaged in their education and achieve more highly. It’s not hard to imagine that teachers and headteachers might also flourish in schools with such an emphasis and hence not burn out and leave so regularly and rapidly. It’s not hard to imagine that we might well prosper more as a country.

A modest investment in developing a culture of positive education and wellbeing in our schools may go some way towards this highly aspirational goal as a nation. For the cynics amongst you – yes, you – who might be tempted to think that such a dream is unrealisable, you might be interested to know that schools, systems and countries around the world already do it and are talking about it here in Texas.

It was JFK who dreamed of putting a man on the Moon. I passed a monument to him in Fort Worth today on my way to the convention centre. He turned his “impossible” dream into a reality. With imagination, we can do the same for thousands of young people, and the nation, by building a ship called Flourishing.

Mike Buchanan is the head of Ashford School in Kent and is the HMC executive director designate

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