Four As can't buy happiness

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Top public school introduces lessons in life skills as it tries to produce well-rounded students who can deal with life beyond exams. Jon Slater reports

Eight hours' sleep a night, vigorous exercise and gardening will all be promoted in a programme to teach pupils at a top private school how to be happy.

Pupils at Wellington College in Berkshire, which charges boarders Pounds 7,665-a-term, will learn the secrets of well-being alongside traditional subjects as part of efforts to produce young men and women who are well-rounded as well as being academic high-fliers.

The classes will teach pupils how to cope with difficult life events such as bereavement and depression; help them understand how to form successful relationships; and teach them how to look after their health.

Anthony Seldon, head of the private school and a biographer of Tony Blair, is introducing the lessons in happiness and positive psychology because he wants pupils to avoid measuring their success solely in terms of academic achievement.

He said: "A school which fails to let every child achieve the best grades of which he or she is capable is failing to do its job properly.

"(But) education is far more than this, which is why league tables, and the reverence in which they are treated are so wrong. They say nothing about the quality of teaching, the wider life of the school, or whether it is turning out resentful and ill-balanced young adults or... young men and women who are happy and who know themselves and what they want to do in life."

His sentiments put him in a seemingly unlikely alliance with the National Union of Teachers, which at its annual conference this week criticised the Government for placing too much emphasis on academic studies.

NUT delegates warned ministers that they are damaging children's social development by forcing them into formal education too young and said time for play is vital to help develop skills such as problem-solving, language and co-operation.

Wellington's happiness classes will be overseen by Dr Nick Baylis, recent founder of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge university.

Dr Baylis, a research psychologist and practising psychotherapist, said: "I want to help students appreciate that there are helpful and unhelpful ways of feeling good. For instance, setting out to 'consume' pleasure through too much alcohol, sweets and TV, might bring us quick-fix feelings, but these effects quickly wear off and leave us feeling worse than when we started.

"By contrast, when we engage our skills and efforts in something, perhaps by volunteering to help someone, or playing sport, or undertaking a challenging task, we actively create the sorts of positive feelings that can reverberate far more deeply for days after."

Dr Baylis said pupils would engage in role play to work out which thinking and behaviour works best for them in different situations.

A key part of the lessons will help students to channel negative emotions such as loneliness and shame in a constructive way rather than letting them act as barriers to their goals.

They will also be taught that even pleasurable emotions can have a dangerous side. Dr Baylis said: "We can all recall occasions when our confidence, pride or even love caused us to sprawl head over heels with a resounding thump."

Costs of the course, which starts in September, are still being worked out but are expected to be up to pound;10,000 for equipment and teacher training.

Dr Seldon's were comments, made in an article in the Independent newspaper on Wednesday. The NUT also attacked league tables.

Sue Kirkham, head of Walton high school in Stafford, said many state schools were already doing many of the things Dr Seldon is proposing in PSHE lessons but that the pressure of tests and tables prevented them doing more. She said: "It is a good idea. At our school we have a bereavement counsellor. But the pressure schools are under from Ofsted to improve results... puts pressure on children."

The Government last week announced plans to introduce tougher lessons for infants in an effort to kick-start improvements in test scores at age 11 which have stalled below official targets.

But the NUT said such a move would damage, not help, children's social and academic development. It said play was vital if children were to develop the skills needed for learning.

Jane Nellist from Coventry told the NUT conference ministers were guilty of "state-sponsored child abuse" by denying them time to play. Sandpits and play equipment had disappeared from primaries across the country because of the Government's obsession with testing and league tables. Nick Godfrey, a Lambeth primary teacher, said: "I think many children no longer know how to play.

"There is a government and media-generated climate of fear which means children can no longer play outside," he said.

International research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests children do better academically in countries where formal education is delayed. But Lesley Drake, Newham primary teacher, warned the union: "Do not throw the baby out with the bath water." She said teachers were being unfairly attacked by advisers who supported play rather than formal learning for young children.


Easter conferences 8

Details of Dr Baylis' book Learning from wonderful lives: lessons from the study of well-being available from

Six steps to contentment

Students at Wellington College will be taught at least six steps to happiness:

* Join in social activities. They have a dramatic ability to improve both psychological and physical health.

* A minimum of eight hours' sleep a night is vital to our well-being. Sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation technique because it breaks down our relationships with other people and the world around us.

* Vigorous physical exercise, at least 45 minutes three times a week, is the most effective anti-depressant available. And its only side effects are becoming fitter and trimmer.

* Learn to ask for and offer help.

* Laughter, singing, gardening and spending time in the natural world all help heal psychological (and psychosomatic) troubles.

* Consciously set out to learn from the lives of other people. It helps develop the ability to make the best of whatever circumstances life throws at us.

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