10 ways to ensure that happiness is a priority in schools

Is there room for teaching happiness in the Government’s pursuit to push UK schools up the international league tables?

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In the early stages of the introduction of the EBacc, I remember the term ‘Gove’s robots’ being used, referring to a generation of children who would be subjected to rote learning of traditional subjects so that standards in education could be raised.  The measure of success would be Britain’s position in the international league tables for education.

I’m not against raising standards in education nor would I be unhappy if Britain was the international leader in education, however, in an era where teachers are encouraged to facilitate deep learning in the classroom, it is ironic that the Education Minister introduced changes that are based on a ‘shallow’ understanding of education (an understanding that education should driven and measured by league tables).

Daniel Goleman’s study on emotional intelligence is clear that success in a career or business relies on emotional intelligence and ‘people skills’ rather than academic success and the collection of facts.  It is a myth that our new rigorous exam system is the answer to preparing children for the world of work.   Once again, I am not denying that academic success is not important but an individual with a positive attitude, social skills and a strong work ethic is far more likely to succeed than 10 A*s, a PHD and no people skills.

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Shocking statistics from the NSPCC reveal that mental health and exam stress is rising in the UK.  Exam stress caused a 200% rise in requests for counselling, with its ChildLine service receiving more than 34,000 approaches in 2013-14.  With such an increased focus on exam attainment, is the happiness of children being neglected at the expense of higher grades?

A UK school conducted a survey asking pupils and staff – what are the skills, attributes and qualities that a student should leave school with?  At the top of the list for the teachers was independence and the strongest response from pupils was good GCSE grades.  The interesting contrast in the results is that teachers valued the personal growth of a student whereas pupils measured their personal growth through exam attainment.

So what does all of this mean?  If the key to life is happiness, how do we ensure that happy ‘well rounded pupils’ develop spiritually under intense academic pressure?  Spiritual growth should be developed through RE, PSHE, Citizenship and the Arts; unfortunately, all of these subject areas have lost importance since the introduction of the EBacc.

In summary, the responsibility for promoting happiness falls on the hardworking, caring and dedicated staff in schools.  It is the pastoral care of the School Community that develops an ethos of happiness.  This will never be prioritised by the government because ethos is the unmeasurable magic within a school; unfortunately, governments like objective measurement scales.  A teacher who promotes happiness, facilitates independence and ‘lights fires’ within pupils makes more of an impact than a teacher whose priority is grade attainment; unfortunately grade attainment has the biggest impact during an OfSTED inspection.

Below are our top 10 tips on ensuring that happiness is promoted in schools:

  1. Put community at the heart of the school – one of the keys to well-being is connecting. An outstanding school community facilitates a culture where all stakeholders have the time and opportunities to communicate on an academic and social level.  Family values are at the heart of a community and should be integral in the ethos of the school.
  2. Value the art of learning – “Aspire not to have more but to be more” Oscar Romero. Learning new things makes us feel good but only if we value ‘why’ we are learning.  Economic prosperity and security are a good motivational tool in helping people to succeed in education.  However, the foundations of achievement should be centred on aspiring to be more.  Careers education needs to put vocation before career.  Children should understand that some high salaries can come at a cost to your personal well-being whereas some lower paid jobs can be rewarding and satisfying.
  3. Ensure that pupils are aware and value what they have – we all take things in life for granted from time to time. Unfortunately, it often takes a loss of something or someone for us to appreciate what we had.  It is essential that young people learn to cherish family, friends, food, shelter, the local environment, our heritage and the freedom of speech that can so often be taken for granted. We can so easily lose sight of happiness if we lose awareness of what we already have.
  4. Allow for time to chat with pupils – How often do we branch away from our learning objectives and just chat to pupils. Chatting to pupil and getting to know them is a great way of finding out all about their gifts and talents.  Children love to talk to you about their hobbies and interests and a teacher who engages in conversation and ‘shows an interest’ will make those pupils feel valued and happy.  As Don Bosco said – “The teacher who is seen only in the classroom and nowhere else, is a teacher and nothing more; let him go with his boys to recreation and he becomes a brother.”
  5. Value RE, the Arts and PSHE/Citizenship – These subjects are amongst the biggest casualties of the EBacc. Somehow, we are supposed to prepare pupils for life in a global community, yet key subjects like RE, PSHE and Citizenship are not valued as highly as EBacc subjects.  The government wants British Values, extremism prevention and democracy as a priority in schools but does not support the curriculum area which is key to delivering this content.  Happiness is achieved through a balance of spiritual and academic achievement which cannot be achieved by solely focusing on the EBacc subjects.
  6. Remember that pupils can be just as busy as teachers – we all need a work-life balance to maintain a certain level of happiness. However, under the increasing pressure on teachers to ensure that pupils achieve their target grades, it is tempting to push the pressure and a heavy work schedule on pupils.  We sometimes forget that children are also busy as carers, participating in clubs, activities, revising, doing a job, prefects, mentors, sport … the list goes on.  Too much work and pressure for pupils can increase their stress levels and cause unnecessary unhappiness.
  7. Giving –it makes us feel good when we give. Kindness makes us happy and is so easily achievable.  Encouraging pupils to do a random act of kindness a day, raise funds for charity or help other pupils in the classroom are all ways in which children will be rewarded with happiness.
  8. Have a broad and differentiated curriculum where all pupils feel that they can achieve – having a broad and differentiated curriculum is essential for personalising the learning experience of all learners. A blend of academic, vocational and enrichment activities will help pupils to achieve in an area that suits their gifts and talents.  Achievement an essential component of self-belief which is an important part of making people happy.
  9. Create opportunities where pupils feel valued – everybody loves to have some responsibility and feel valued. Making opportunities for pupils to take on responsibilities or rewarding them at every opportunity is essential for their happiness.  Giving pupils a badge or a sticker always seems to win a smile, even year 11s secretly enjoy a sticker.
  10. Encourage healthy living – a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and positive thinking. We also feel better about ourselves and have more self-respect when we are healthy.  Irregular sugar levels, caffeine and other toxins are the causes of changes in mood, energy levels and motivation.  Happiness is underpinned by a healthy lifestyle.

All of the ideas above point in the direction of teaching well-being to children.  The term ‘well-being’ has been very popular amongst teachers over the past years but we need to remember that if well-being had been a priority curriculum area when we were at school, we might have developed into a happier society, which now seems a luxury in a fast-paced world which places too much value on economic growth.

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