By understanding emotional factors that can hold back learning, teachers can help children develop as effective students
if you are working in a primary school, it is likely that you are familiar with the primary national strategy's Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) curriculum resources. The two-year primary pilot ended in 2005, and so far since then about 60 per cent of primaries have started using the materials.
Now it is the turn of secondaries. The secondary Seal resources, which have been piloted in six local authorities since 2005, are to be launched nationally in September, although local authorities are being advised to have just 10 per cent of schools use them initially.
The primary and secondary materials cover a range of emotional and behavioural skills - self-awareness, social skills, empathy, managing feelings, motivation - divided into classroom themes and activities. All the content and guidance for staff is readily accessible in print and on the internet.
The project's aims and the quality of the materials are not in question.
The issue for leadership is whether, and how, to find a place for them in the already crowded curriculum. Anyone accustomed to cries of "Not another initiative!" is in for a surprise, because there is evidence that Seal is well regarded in most user schools.
Cockshut Hill technology college in Yardley, Birmingham, for example, was impressed to the point that staff made a start with the primary materials before the secondary versions were available.
"Our big push this year was about building learning power," says Debbie Fudge, assistant principal. "We'd created a project called Learning 4U - Resilience, Resourcefulness, Reciprocity and Reflectiveness. And when we looked at what the primaries were doing with Seal, we realised that it's basically the same."
Therein lies the key to the attraction of Seal. It catches a tide of separate waves in education, including circle time, emotional literacy, anger management, behaviour improvement and mentoring of learning.
Seal sits so easily with schools' values that a few primary heads argue that they do not need to be told how to apply the techniques. One said:
"It's very patronising. It's as if we haven't been doing it for years and we jolly well have."
Deborah Michel, senior adviser for the primary and secondary national strategies, would argue that this is a misunderstanding, that Seal's purpose is to legitimise and affirm existing values and activities. "It takes what used to be called the hidden curriculum," she says, "making it explicit and in the open, so that every teacher knows about it and can explain to young people why they are doing it, as opposed to having it as an unspoken part of school."
That is the view at Holbrook primary in Coventry, where Michelle Hayward, a class teacher specialising in personal, social and health education, feels that Seal gives her a strong framework and excellent support materials for tackling relationship issues.
"A lot of the work in Year 6 was about loss, separation and divorce," she says. "That can be difficult, but in the context of Seal it seemed to be much easier to deal with."
It is clear, though, that while schools welcome official blessing to concentrate on what they have always considered to be core values - co-operation, self-esteem, consideration for others - they are certain that it is the "L" - for learning - in Seal that is important.
Lorrayne Hughes, deputy head at William Howard school in Brampton, Cumbria, a Seal secondary pilot school, says: "We're a reasonably high-performing school and we wanted to see how we could develop really independent learners. Seal came about then, and we very much felt that it was the way forward for us."
At Cockshut Hill, Ms Fudge says: "It will help with transition and to deal with that regression at the start of key stage 3. It will ensure that we have able learners and support us in developing personalised learning."
What users are keen to emphasise, too, is that Seal is not an approach to take just with disaffected groups. The aim is to embed it across schools, identifying it explicitly in lesson planning.
Ms Hughes says: "I wanted to make it part of the whole curriculum. We wanted sessions with midday supervisors and administration staff. It has to be part of the whole ethos. Implicit in that is that it won't work unless it is driven from the top."
That is the message from Ms Michel, too. "The two most important things are that it is a whole-school approach, for everyone, not just those in difficulty, and that it is about learning and teaching as well as about behaviour."
* www.bandapilot.org.uk gives guides to primary and secondary Seal concepts and resources