Promoting Well being in Schools Will Improve Exam Results - Nov '17

By Mark Richards from Impact Tutors

It's certainly encouraging to note that there now seems to be a greater awareness about the dangers of stress and mental health. From events such as International Stress Awareness Day to World Mental Health Day, promoted by prominent figures such as Prince William and Prince Harry, there has been a lot of positive work going on recently not just to raise awareness of the problem, but also to reduce the stigma around it that still exists in many circles.

However, there is an irony. The theme of October's World Mental Health Day was workplace well being - and there is probably no other workplace in the country right now (with the possible exception of the NHS) where well being is more of a concern than in our schools.

And, sadly, the words 'stress' and 'education' are now virtually synonymous. They go neatly hand in hand. The teachers are stressed about target grades, levels of progress, and exam results. The pupils are equally stressed - as their teachers' stress rubs off on them - and they face the challenge of the most rigorous and demanding curriculum and exam programme in a generation.

Then there are the parents. Always well meaning, but also feeling the stress of trying to support their children and find the best way they can to help them succeed at school. If they are not careful, parents' stress converts into real pressure on their children - increasing stress levels all around.

The UK education system adds to stress levels

The recent reforms to GCSE and A Level exams have seen the level of challenge that young people face stepped up considerably. The focus of the UK education system at present is very much on academic rigour. With schools feeling under great pressure to improve exam results, it's no surprise that it sometimes feels that it is all that matters.

Some schools now have 'pre-mocks' and 'post-mocks' as well as the traditional mock exams. Extra revision sessions, interventions and catch-ups are now the norm rather than the exception. Something has to give. In some cases, this has seen subjects (mainly in the Arts) cut entirely from the curriculum. At the very least, any activity not focusing on the core subjects (particularly) and exam preparation has seen its time reduced from the curriculum.

PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) remains non-statutory and has been shifted to the side-lines by many schools. Wellbeing is a valuable topic for lesson time but in the current climate of exam pressure and accountability, it's a luxury most schools will feel they cannot afford.

But, that would be a real mistake.

Well being on the curriculum?

Well being is certainly worthy of a place on the curriculum. Leading American psychologist, Martin Seligman, believes it can be taught alongside the traditional elements of education - literacy, numeracy and Science.

His research finds that teaching cognitive and emotional skills to children aged 10 and 11 will result in those children experiencing far lower rates of anxiety and depression later on. Research in several countries also shows that where cognitive skills are actively taught in schools, not only does well being increase – so do exam results.

Seligman's positive psychology is connected with 5 pillars of learning - PERMA : emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment Learning about how to be more engaged in school and to relate to others more positively will only ever reduce stress.

A recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study found the UK to rank 38th (out of 48 countries) for teenage wellbeing. The PISA Happiness Table makes disturbing reading for UK education leaders, and suggests there is much to be done to reduce stress caused by our school system.

Mark Richards is the lead writer for the Impact Tutors blog. He has 18 years of experience in secondary school classrooms and has been a Head of English in two schools and an Assistant Headteacher in two schools. Mark has held a variety of senior examining positions and is currently a GCSE Chief Examiner.

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