In Curriculum for Excellence we are told that “all practitioners have a responsibility to develop, reinforce and extend skills in…health and wellbeing across the curriculum”. A sense of wellbeing is said to promote “confidence, independent thinking and positive attitudes and dispositions”. Getting it Right for Every Child, meanwhile, has eight wellbeing indicators: every child should feel safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included.
The motives behind the discourse of wellbeing are no doubt well-intentioned, but does it amount to more than a rather shallow and sentimental example of the “feel-good” rhetoric now found in many educational policy statements?
I think wellbeing is best understood as a byproduct of doing something else, rather than a target to be aimed for consciously. It can derive from many forms of fulfilment and achievement: academic success, sporting prowess, skill in practical or aesthetic subjects, good relationships, contributing to the community. It’s a feeling that comes indirectly rather than through pursuit of an explicit aim, so lessons on “developing wellbeing skills” are unlikely to have much appeal or effect.
Much of the material on wellbeing is simplistic. For most people life is a journey marked by progress and setbacks, rites of passage negotiated with variable success, times of happiness or regret, relationships that work and some that don’t. Life is about learning to cope with emotional highs and lows; it is rarely, if ever, a steady progression towards a state of wellbeing. The trite statements in CfE “outcomes” don’t begin to capture that complexity.
Another important aspect relates particularly to expressive arts. Here, some of the best work arises from a lack of wellbeing – a sense of dissatisfaction, incompleteness, a striving to make sense of confused or disturbing feelings.
Poetry, art, drama, dance and music allow emotional exploration of a kind not adequately captured in tidy statements of wellbeing. In fact, some of these read like their intention is the containment of honest, raw emotions – a form of control rather than liberation. Only permitted emotions are acceptable: there seems to be no place for justified anger or moral outrage in CfE’s classification.
David Hartley has written about “the management of emotion”, a rather sinister attempt to sanitise and contain forms of expression perceived as negative and potentially disruptive, even if they reflect significant aspects of the human condition.
On this analysis, ticking off the achievement of wellbeing as if it were similar to maths or science is not only unhelpful but also a misrepresentation of the diverse ways in which people develop understanding of their own psychology.
Committed teachers have always been concerned with pupils’ welfare, not just the formal requirements of the curriculum. It is questionable whether their efforts will be enhanced by the fashionable discourse of wellbeing.
Walter Humes is a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling