What if schools valued wellbeing more than results?

The New Zealand government puts mental health above economic stability. Our schools should do the same, says Tara Porter

New Zealand is valuing wellbeing over economic growth

Governments throughout the world organise their budgets with the aim of economic stability and growth. The New Zealand government has become one of the first governments in the world to turn this idea on its head. They have designed their budget not around monetary aims but around wellbeing aims

In the UK, David Cameron suggested back in 2006 that we should move away from an obsession with gross domestic product (GDP) to instead focus on general wellbeing (GWB), but the idea remained purely speculative, and our budgeting continues on economic grounds. 


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However, at this point in time, even some economists want a change in focus. For example, Professor Lord Richard Layard, from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, recently proposed that the Comprehensive Spending Review should be organised around prioritising mental health (Today, Radio 4, 25 May). It is hypothesised that such a move would stimulate economic growth as well as personal happiness – presumably because we would be more productive, take fewer days off sick, have fewer costly problems in our relationships, and so on. 

What has New Zealand done?

The New Zealand government established five key areas as part of its Wellbeing Budget:

  1. Taking mental health seriously, through investment in front-line services, housing and addiction. 
  2. Improving child welfare, especially for children in care or living in poverty, and for victims of sexual and family violence. 
  3. Supporting Maori and Pasifika aspirations, through investing in community health programmes and projects to reduce reoffending.
  4. Building a productive nation through technology and vocational education. 
  5. Transforming into an ecologically sustainable economy, through reducing emissions and investing in public transport.

What if we did this in education? What if the Department for Education, local education authorities, schools and academies had to adopt versions of these five ideas as their central tenets? How would this play out for the mental health and wellbeing of our children and future generations?

1. Taking child mental health seriously 

Of course (nearly) all schools in the UK take mental health seriously, but what if they put it first, before any other responsibility? What if their primary purpose was to educate children to have a happy and healthy life? 

There are economic as well as social arguments for this, as 50 per cent of all adult mental health problems start before the age of 14, and the total cost to the economy of mental health problems is estimated to be £105 billion a year.

Schools would not be ranked on the basis of academic output, but instead on children’s emotional wellbeing. The success of a school would, therefore, be determined not by its entries to top universities but by its ability to produce mentally well grown-ups. 

A move to a wellbeing culture would mean that less-academic pupils would be encouraged to become well-rounded, law-abiding, productive citizens, at peace with themselves. School would focus on preparing children for life, rather than on their ability to regurgitate knowledge in an exam, so it would include information about finances and relationships. A broad curriculum, with room for creative and active pursuits, would engage children in positive life habits and be protective for mental health and the avoidance of addiction or physical illness. 

Children need clear boundaries and rules, based on mutual respect and responsibility, to help them feel emotionally contained and cared for – so that would need to be the basis for school discipline. This is the stuff that helps children to develop resilience. 

Some children from troubled homes might need highly skilled outreach into their family or community in order to be able to manage such a structured setting, but this would be an investment in avoiding future social and mental health problems. 

Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and education would be fully integrated, and there would be a high level of pastoral care, in an effort to prevent problems such as addiction and bullying by intervening before they arose. 

2. Improving child wellbeing

It is well established that some children from certain social groups underperform in school, and also that poverty in adulthood is linked to mental health problems. 

Often, models for social mobility for disadvantaged children in the UK seem to focus either on grammar schools or on Michaela-style academies, based on traditional teaching methods. But research suggests that it is not helpful for psychological health for one group of children to feel they have failed at 11. 

As a psychologist, I know the mental health impact of putting children through a competitive, relentlessly academic school system. While some children thrive there, others will crash and burn. 

A broad curriculum is probably the best way to capture the skills and imaginations of a broad cohort of children, based on equal respect for traditional academic subjects as well as practical, vocational skills, and including plenty of extracurricular activities. Prioritise giving teachers time to listen and to be role models, rather than focusing exclusively on exam results. 

3. Supporting disadvantaged groups through community healthcare and reducing reoffending 

The New Zealand government is trying to offer equality of opportunity by reaching out to indigenous groups who have suffered discrimination. In the UK, we clearly have different issues in relation to cultural identity and integration. 

The challenge is how groups disengaged by education can be re-engaged. While other nations have moved towards having less segregated school systems to address these issues, the UK seems to be going the opposite way. It is clear that many parents value selection by religion, wealth or intelligence, and that being educated with likeminded folk promotes their sense of community. Others may believe it embeds social inequality and prejudice. Research from the US suggests that desegregated schools have long-term benefits including in terms of wellbeing and offending rates.

4. Building a productive nation based on technology and vocational education

Michael Gove’s reforms took schools back to a more traditional education, based on academia, knowledge and fact-learning. New Zealand is heading in a different direction, based on technology and vocational learning. A New Zealand model would move away from knowledge-based learning, towards computing, business and the arts, as well as practical and local skills. 

It also seems that a broad curriculum is better for mental health, as it gives children opportunity to find something they are good at, and to express their emotions through art and sport. 

5. Transforming the economy to one with a low environmental impact

There would need to be at least two strands to adopting this standard in education. 

The first is how we educate a generation with the skills to solve the environmental problem. The second is how to make the process of education carbon-neutral. 

This would in all likelihood impact on every part of the school day. Are school dinners or packed lunches environmentally friendly? What are the teaching methods that create the best educational outcomes and the least waste? 

One environmental factor, which also impacts on physical and mental health, would be children walking to school. Children travel further to school than they did a generation ago, and because of this are more likely to be driven. Would this mean school allocation moved back to distance rather than parental choice? And would that act to improve social integration or embed it?

A school utopia

My speculations about the impact of adopting the tenets of the New Zealand budget in UK schools are obviously purely hypothetical. My inferences create a fantasy of schools not just being at the heart of their community but creating a community close to where their pupils live. 

These schools would be based on cultural respect and integration, with no child being left behind or excluded from education. They would offer a high-quality technological, academic and artistic curriculum, and a high level of pastoral care, so that every child was offered equality and the opportunity to succeed, without being put under so much pressure that they broke down. 

It’s purely a speculative daydream, but isn’t it rather a nice one? 

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist at the Royal Free London NHS Trust and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, as well as Tes' mental health columnist. The views expressed are her own

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