Wellbeing obsession is making me ill

13th March 2009 at 00:00

How are you feeling today on a scale of one to 10?

Today, I'm on about three - full of dread, anger and bitterness. Why? I've just looked at Estyn's new inspection framework proposals.

If approved, there will be just three key questions (reduced from seven) during school inspections. Key question one - "How good are outcomes?" - will be sub-divided into standards and wellbeing. Wellbeing?

I urge you to go to Estyn's website and complete the survey in response to the new framework. In particular, I implore you to reject the use of the term wellbeing. And while you're completing the survey, please consider some of the other questions. My favourite, question 19, asks respondents whether they agree that inspection reports should be clearer.

What a daft question! Would anyone not want the reports to be clearer? I was tempted to answer "strongly disagree", adding a comment along the following lines: "I'd like reports to be written using arcane language in which all statements referring to 'wellbeing' are followed by a clown face icon."

But of course we want inspection reports to be opaque, I hear you cry. After all, if we make them as unintelligible as possible, they will be as good as useless. Strangely, this is exactly what will happen if and when Estyn's new framework is established. Because who understands what wellbeing means?

It simply suggests good health to me. To you, it may mean something different. Without a clear definition of this concept that is pivotal to the new inspection framework, how can reports be clearer?

Meanwhile, if teachers do not respond to the questionnaire, Estyn will assume we all agree. We will be tacitly agreeing to something that is not understood. If wellbeing is to become a cornerstone of the new inspection framework, shouldn't its definition precede any debate?

In England, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is one step ahead. A report it recently commissioned confirms confusion over the term. I quote from a story in The TES of November 2008: "It (wellbeing) is, the report warns, extremely vague and pops up everywhere from academic reports to yoghurt adverts. It is a key phrase in the department's 10-year children's plan, which includes a vow in its first chapter to 'secure the wellbeing and health of children and young people'."

It's Estyn and, of course, the Assembly government whose wellbeing we should be concerned about. Perhaps this new emphasis on wellbeing is some sort of cry for help from those in charge. I would like to create my own online questionnaire for Estyn.

Question one: Are you all right?

Question two: Would you like a lie down?

Estyn appears to want wellbeing to have the same status as learning. What is so obvious to me, you, and every other teacher in the known universe, is that these two concepts are bound together. A child who is miserable, ill or fed up is not going to learn. Therefore, in a nutshell, we only need one measure - that of learning. And, hey presto, if a child is learning, he or she must have this elusive wellbeing. If a child learns, he or she will be more confident, open to new ideas, ready for new challenges. And better learning must lead, inevitably, to greater wellbeing - whatever this is.

Wellbeing is such a horrible term. It's a silly, trendy, new age, hippy word, grown in the dubious plant pots of the 1960s. If, instead, Estyn officers had grown up in the Victorian era, we would have a different concept, something solid, incontestable - something like "moral fibre", as locked in its time as the intensely drippy wellbeing.

How do you measure wellbeing, anyway? I assume it will be a matter of asking someone how they are. Let's imagine the conversation.

Inspector: How are you?

Child: Fine, thanks.

Inspector: Could you qualify that? How fine? Very fine, would you say, or just moderately fine?

Can you imagine teachers wasting weeks coaching children in the language of wellbeing? I can. I am imagining it now and it's making me feel unwell.

Worse still, there is a danger that by expecting teachers to run around trying to find out not just what wellbeing is, but how to measure it and draw up policies and schemes of work that outline how to deliver it, learning will be compromised.

Our job, first and foremost, must be to teach. If Estyn has its way, that role will become fogged and our mission fuzzy. The search for the elusive holy grail of wellbeing will lead to more stress, more sickness, and general all-round unwellbeing.

For goodness' sake, Estyn, haven't you got enough to do? Leave us all alone to concentrate on what is, after all, a pretty straightforward task: teaching.

Whatever else we are asked to do - promote wellbeing or emotional intelligence, explore learning styles - fundamentally, we know whether a child can read or not, whether they are following a lesson. Learning is our aim, and if a child is not learning, we can consider what needs to be done. Learning is all that matters. Wellbeing will surely follow.

Andrew Strong, Head of Llanbister Primary School, Powys; children's author.

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