The latest update of the World Happiness Report, released earlier this month, highlights the importance of wellbeing for student performance. And the removal of Natasha Devon from her role as mental health champion for schools (bit.ly/TESDevon) makes me even more determined to put happiness at the heart of student activities at my college.
Research shows that levels of engagement are directly affected by wellbeing – not just at work but in every aspect of life. I believe that heads of schools and colleges have a role to play in championing wellbeing, and I have certainly made a good start at Great Yarmouth College, where I am chief executive.
But it has prompted me to question: why isn’t there a more concerted, government-led focus? Particularly when one in four British people experience a mental illness each year and mental illness in the under-25s has risen by 600 per cent in some areas of the UK. A relentless focus on skills and qualifications is, of course, important. But so is supporting people to live grounded, thriving lives.
After all, ask an employer what qualities they look for in recruits and the discussion, although often beginning with a technical description, will quickly move on to teamwork, honesty, enthusiasm, social skills, taking responsibility and leadership potential. Ask someone what it is to be a good friend or neighbour, and they will give you a similar list.
We need to question how we, as educators, can improve the skills of good citizenship in young people. I would argue that the structure of most academic courses, assessments and progression (to university or work) is too one-dimensional and linear to cope with the complexities of being human. Standard academic years, the length of the college day and how learning is structured all have an impact on wellbeing and student success.
Take a seat at the happy cafe
During my first year at Great Yarmouth, I partnered with Action for Happiness, harnessing the organisation’s research and tools – including its 10 keys to happier living, which are now incorporated into our tutorial programme. We also set up a “happy cafe”, encouraging students to socialise outside their classrooms. This link-up is the first of its kind, and it’s just one example of us helping students to take positive action to improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
Never has our integrated approach to wellbeing been more important: according to the charity Young Minds, in an average classroom, three students will have a diagnosed mental illness, and many more will be battling conditions for which they have not sought help. The need for intervention in Great Yarmouth is even more pronounced, as it is one of the most deprived areas in England.
I am a staunch believer in colleges playing a central role in social cohesion. Our interaction and close involvement with students, families, minority groups and businesses means that we are ideally placed to actively improve wellbeing in the local area. For some students, college can be a lifeline, not just in terms of improving their work prospects, by boosting technical and professional skills, but also by helping them to develop as a whole person. We provide emotional and practical support, set goals, and raise hopes and aspirations. The college is a community, and we must nurture and invest in that.
A year on and we are seeing some positive results. Some students have been transformed by the college’s approach: learners who couldn’t enter class on their own are now giving presentations to their peers. We have students who, despite tough family demands and circumstances, are making time to take part in extra-curricular activities, which has boosted their confidence and social skills, enabling them to engage fully in class and achieve their true potential.
Our new sport and wellbeing centre opened this spring. As a keen sportsman, I know the value of exercise – not just for physical fitness but for meeting new people, making friends, developing self-discipline, understanding others and working as part of a team. Participation has doubled in a few months thanks to the development of a broad range of activities (including a gym, massage therapy, yoga and martial arts).
We know that mental health is a growing concern for our young people, and the benefits of combining wellbeing with education are clear (and, frankly, obvious). But where is the incentive for colleges and schools to build wellbeing and character development programmes into their curricula?
Shouldn’t they be focused on developing well-rounded members of the community who contribute to the local economy on many levels? If we want our young people to score higher in the happiness tables, achieve better academically (based on their potential and not on where they are born) and enjoy economic prosperity in meaningful and varied lifelong work, the way forward is simple. Let’s find a balance between life skills and education in our colleges, and let’s ensure that sufficient reward and recognition are provided for these positive social aspirations.
But to be clear, I believe that delivering academic success and developing an individual’s character and wellbeing are intrinsically linked. They are not mutually exclusive, or an afterthought, or a “nice to have”.
The development of character and values must sit next to, and interact with, technical or academic training if we are to reverse the worrying trend in mental health problems among our young people.
Stuart Rimmer is chief executive of Great Yarmouth College @coachinception