I'm happy to annoy the right-wing press

12th May 2006 at 01:00
You can never tell what will capture the media's attention. When two weeks ago my school announced it was to begin "teaching" happiness, no one foresaw how it would be picked up across the British media and indeed internationally.

Most commentators took it seriously, as they should have done, not least because of all the evidence from Professor Richard Layard and others that rising affluence is not making Britain happier. The fact that Cambridge university also believes that this is a subject that can and should be taught to children, and that "happiness" is the most popular course option at Harvard this year, also suggests that the topic merits special attention.

Governments are one group who don't like the idea of teaching happiness at school. I think this is because happiness is not measurable like academic results. It can therefore appear trivial and not worthy of government funding. Governments want and need quantifiable targets, not least because they help their re-election. That is why our education system has a plethora of unnecessary exams.

The right-wing press was also sniffy about teaching happiness. If these papers had consulted readers who are parents, - many of whom pay fees in independent schools - they would have found out that parents want their children to be happy at school, and place this goal higher than any other.

Besides, happy children do better at exams than stressed children and develop into more successful adults.

Academic purists also thought the very idea frivolous and lacking intellectual rigour. Surely, they suggested, we could not be contemplating losing lesson time for such anti-intellectual activity? In fact, I think that these happiness classes, or positive psychology classes (to use their proper name), can and will be incorporated into personal social and health education lessons, with no loss of curricular time.

The evidence shows us that material wealth does not necessarily breed happiness. So we have to ask the question, what are schools for? Are they just there, as the Government and league-table warriors believe, to maximise exam results (and in the process, fail to take any account of the quality of the learning experience in lessons)? Or do schools have a wider mission - to educate the whole child? Which means not just intellectually, but also emotionally (and aesthetically, spiritually, morally, physically etc)?

I believe that schools should have this much wider mission, and that governments in Britain and abroad have failed badly in promoting it. What is not learned at school age is much harder to pick up later on in life.

This includes learning how to maximise the chances for happiness and well-being, something Dr Nick Baylis of Cambridge university says can be taught to children of school age.

If it can be done - and I will be reviewing the classes critically once they begin for Years 10 and 11 in September - then I think schools have a moral responsibility to teach positive psychology.

I was greatly encouraged when speaking at the National Union of Teachers' conference (yes, true!) that general secretary Steve Sinnott and delegates welcomed this idea. One recalled how the idea of making lessons fun was derided by government 25 years ago.

If the initiative proves successful - and surely there can be indicators developed such as behaviour and absences to show whether it is - then I very much hope it can be extended across the state sector. The children deserve it, teachers will benefit, and parents will know that schools are doing the right thing.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington college

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