Pursuit of happiness is our inalienable duty

14th September 2007 at 01:00
Full marks to Ed Balls, children's secretary, on his announcement that the social and emotional aspects of learning programme (Seal) will be introduced across state secondary schools, having been run successfully in primaries. This is a move to be applauded by all who care about the quality of education and the nurturing of the young. It is heartening that voices as divergent as the Confederation of British Industry and the National Union of Teachers have welcomed the initiative.

"Well-being" lessons, or "happiness" classes, as the media loves to call them, have not been without their critics. Opponents come in three types: the Gradgrinds, the philosophers and the worriers. The Gradgrinds think that education is all about learning facts and that any time spent on such matters as emotional well-being is wasted. But the calmer children are, the more able they will be to learn.

Meanwhile, the philosophers object to the whole notion of well-being classes, deeming them inappropriate for schools. Chris Woodhead, for example, thinks they are "mush". But if you believe school is about educating the whole child to prepare them for life, then such classes are vital.

The concern of the "worriers" is that expecting untrained adults to teach well-being lessons could be dangerous and open up children to difficult feelings. But with suitable training, adults can deliver such lessons well. Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow, is one such worrier. She has produced data that shows the Seal classes have not created happier children. But it takes time for the benefits to be felt.

I strongly encourage the Government to consider two adaptations. First, they should place a much greater emphasis on physical well-being, as we do at Wellington College. Children can be taught how to breathe deeply to gain self control and to ward off fear; to exercise the body and stretch it fully, with yoga-style exercises; they can learn about hydration and nutrition; and gain a better understanding of the role of exercise in a healthy lifestyle. Three weekly periods of exercise have more effect in inducing well-being than taking Prozac. Weaning the young off artificial stimulants and teaching them how to get in touch with their bodies are vital lessons.

Second, the Seal approach should be extended to the entire school workforce, as we are piloting with Wokingham local authority. Programmes must start with the head, who bears primary responsibility for the well-being of the whole school. A workforce with emotional, physical and mental well-being will not only help productivity and assist in retention and recruitment, they will also provide far better role models for young people. Such staff will also be better placed to deliver Seal classes because they will understand the subject better.

I am full of optimism that Mr Balls and the Department for Children, Schools and Families will welcome these two proposals. I wish them well with extending Seal.

Anthony Seldon Master of Wellington College, Berkshire

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