Our report for Welsh Government on ‘promoting emotional health, well-being, and resilience in primary schools’ was published on Monday by Public Policy Institute for Wales. Co-authored with Professor Colleen McLaughlin, Jess Cotney, Lucy Roberts, and Celeste Peereboom, the report is designed to convey key messages from a very large and diverse body of research on well-being in schools.
It was a challenging report in many ways, not only because of the immense volume of research and policy that we had to work through (thanks especially to Jess, Lucy, and Celeste for their incredible efforts here!), but also because we really had to think hard about next steps for policymakers in this field.
There is a massive body of research out there on programmes that can potentially support well-being, whether the focus is on specialist staff such as counsellors, therapeutic interventions to reduce mental health difficulties, anti-bullying approaches, strategies to create a health-promoting environment, or classroom-based ‘social and emotional learning’ initiatives.
But after synthesising the evidence, we came to the conclusion that the task now is not merely to select ‘the best’ programme(s) or resource(s). Rather, our priority must be to develop more effective ways for schools to get the most out of those programmes and resources. We know that good initiatives, no matter how strong the evidence, can fail to deliver the hoped-for outcomes, often because the work on well-being ends up competing with the (understandable) focus on academic attainment at school.
The recommendations we make in our report include steps to move away from this idea of a trade-off between academic goals and well-being in schools. We want to move towards a position where promoting well-being is not seen as an ‘extra’ but rather is a core part of good teaching and learning, and is connected with, rather than competing with, other school systems.
This doesn’t mean that all staff suddenly have to become therapists or social workers — of course, there will always be a place for specialist support for those pupils who have particular needs and difficulties. But we must remind ourselves that learning at school takes place in the context of human relationships, among and between staff, pupils, families, and the wider community. And this relational context means that the task of promoting well-being can’t just be ticked off a to-do list by buying in a programme or having staff with dedicated roles in this area.
Fundamentally, we argue that well-being at school is everybody’s business — all staff (not just those with specialist roles) and all pupils (not just the ones with ‘problems’), as well as parents and the community. But vague commitments to ‘taking a whole-school approach’ aren’t enough. We now need to develop and test systematic, step-by-step models of how schools can really achieve this in practice.
The ongoing efforts to revise the Welsh school curriculum present an exciting opportunity to embed support for well-being into core pedagogical principles and school systems. We have picked up on a genuine sense of excitement across both the education and health departments in Welsh Government about this journey, and we look forward to supporting their efforts to grapple with the challenges.