Keep children clear of the waterfalls

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Dear Ed Balls,

When I wrote my column to you in May, a TES sub-editor (no doubt sensitive to a puzzled readership) phoned to ask, "Who is Ed Balls?" Now everyone knows you are the new Children, Schools and Families Secretary, and most applaud the pace and assurance of your first three weeks.

Not since Keith Joseph took on the job in 1979 have schools had a leader so in tune with the prime minister of the day. But, unlike Sir Keith, you are decisive and practical. I fear his tenure was not one of the more distinguished. Yours, I am sure, will be. But I want to come back to you on one item.

I recently returned from a conference in Italy for those who work for the Samaritans and Child Helpline agencies internationally. Suicide rates, depression and mental anguish are on the rise globally. The trend among children is particularly worrying. The question everyone asked was: "How to stop children going over the waterfall?" It is easier to stop them at the top of a waterfall than put them back together at the bottom.

All agreed that the rise in depression will continue unless government policies change. It is heartening that in Britain the new Prime Minister is mindful of children's well-being the sermon at his younger son's christening had as its theme the report from the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) on Britain's worrying record on child health. It is good that you are broadening the curriculum, and I approve of your emphasis on economic well being and life skills. But there is a wider vision of what can be taught, which should also include emotional and physical well-being.

We heard from Chris Bale, who runs Zippy's Friends, which operates in 11 countries and teaches five to seven-year-olds about their emotions and how to improve their coping skills. The younger the children, the easier they will embed good practices. In the programme, five-year-olds visit graveyards and learn about death: one cannot stop a grandparent dying, but children can learn how to cope better with their sadness.

Dominic Rudd of the Samaritans spoke about its programme, Deal, for 14 to 16 year-olds, designed to develop emotional intelligence and coping skills. Nada Ignjatovic spoke of her work in Serbia and elsewhere, helping to develop teachers' well-being. If teachers are stressed, they will not enjoy their work nor will they lead children as successfully as they might. Exciting work is now under way on teachers' psychological health. With the local authority, my school is developing its own programme, Every Adult Matters. Under the inspiration of Richard Layard, there is also work on South Tyneside to teach children emotional resilience.

You will achieve much, Mr Balls. If you can engender a broader vision about what education is for, and encourage our schools to produce more balanced, rounded and psychologically healthy young women and men, you will have achieved something no Education Secretary has ever done.

Anthony Seldon

is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

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