Giving youngsters the means to thrive not just academically but in a way that will set them up for the rest of their school careers and beyond is, I’m sure, the ambition of every single primary headteacher in the land.
‘Character’ traits such as resilience, optimism, entrepreneurialism and the ability to network with others should be encouraged in our children and this is increasingly being recognised by leading thinkers in the education world.
This approach has particular resonance today because of two major challenges. One is the debate over social mobility – or the lack of it - for children from our most disadvantaged backgrounds and communities. Give them the skills alongside a good academic grounding and this could help them to get onto the same playing field as their better-off peers, it is argued.
The second is children’s mental health. There’s a lot of research available today pointing towards a mental health crisis with even primary age children. A well put together strategy that promotes well-being will serve a vital role.
“Most of the curriculum is shaped by testing and the accountability framework and that influences what happens with the curriculum and the timetables,” he says. “Children do of course need basic skills to compete, but these are definitely not the only things. They need life skills such as the ability to bounce back from disappointments and the ability to work and collaborate with others, to think in an innovative, problem solving way.”
Andy says that although this is an ambition shared by almost every headteacher there are still not enough schools turning that ambition into reality. The lack of strategy is the answer but he suggests some simple first steps leaders can take to encourage children to develop skills vital for lifelong success:
Don’t regard this issue as an opportunity for intervention – its more fundamental than that. First off you should recognise that developing life skills and wellbeing is as important as maths and English in the school development plan, so this should be embedded in the plan rather than regarded as a bolt-on intervention or enrichment opportunity. In Cheshire East we have created an emotionally healthy school strategy across the area. It looks at early health and helps staff spot issues early. Colleagues have reduced SEND registers from 40 per cent to 12 per cent because of this strategy because it wasn’t an add-on – it was part of the DNA of the schools that took part in it.
Enlist support from your leadership colleagues. This was a key recommendation in the report Promoting children and young people’s emotional health and wellbeing, from Public Health England and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and is essential if you want your efforts to be accepted and embedded. I’d wholeheartedly agree with their recommendation of appointing a governor with an understanding of emotional health and wellbeing issues to help you champion your efforts. The report also makes the point that a commitment to addressing social and emotional wellbeing should be referenced in improvement plans and policies such as safeguarding. I’d also strongly endorse their point about having a champion who promotes emotional health and wellbeing across the organisation.
Make addressing these issues part of the leadership development of your colleagues – and part of your development plan. As a headteacher I encouraged colleagues starting the National Professional Qualifications for Senior Leadership (NPQSL) and Middle Leadership (NPQML) to focus their course assessment projects on wellbeing and ensure that this work formed an integral part of our school development planning. It was of all-round benefit because the projects helped their development and helped the school. Another colleague doing NPQH took a similar approach for their assessment project. They worked up a set of wellbeing indicators to be used with our children.
Find like-minded schools. Find schools with policies such as the promotion of wellbeing, cultural capital and confidence that you can study and potentially adopt. There may also be opportunities for collaboration too. Most regions have a primary headteacher group that you can tap into to find out what projects are going on across your local authority area. I think it’s also useful to read about what is going on in the independent sector. Former QCA chief Mick Waters refers to this in his book, Thinking Allowed. Some of the leading public schools have a lot of experience in developing children’s life skills. At one the development of children is split into four equal areas of emphasis: academic, cultural, character or temperament and networking.
Look outside education for links, support and opportunities. Look at what your local authority health and wellbeing board does in your area. They hold additional funding outside education funding and you could have some of it to fund your strategy. Also, most clinical commissioning groups should have a young people transition board. Their focus is health and wellbeing for the 0-25 age group. Part of that work is on mental health. Partner with them.
Dr Andy Hodgkinson is a former primary executive headteacher who is currently chair of the East Cheshire Primary Headteachers Association, which represents heads from 126 primary schools across the district. Equipping children with the skills for lifelong success is a passion of his.
Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network.