Today I had the pleasure of taking at the PE2020 Active Healthy Minds House of Lords reception. The reception was held in order for the Youth Sport Trust (YST) to highlight some of the work their trailblazing schools are doing across Northamptonshire. I spoke about the changes we had made to PE at my school. PE is now PE and Wellbeing and students have their usual practical lessons but also a theory based wellbeing lesson. ‘My Personal Best’, a YST initiative, is at the centre of our key stage 3 practical PE. My personal best is a set of 12 life-skills/values which we use as the lesson focus. For example, in badminton we would focus on the life-skill of resilience and develop this through learning the technique of the smash. The smash is a very technical skill and to get it right takes focus, practice and definitely resilience. At the end of the lesson we would then discuss how students showed resilience whilst developing their smash technique. One of the common answers is that students use positive self-talk to help them overcome barriers and stay resilient. We would then discuss how we might use resilience in other aspects of school and in their current and their future lives.
Key stage 3 students also take part in two wellbeing sessions a week in the form of our ‘Positive Education’ lessons. Each year group follow a different programme, for example year 7’s use an adapted version of the ‘Characteristics and Virtues’ programme developed by the Jubilee Centre, University of Birmingham (http://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk – they have tons of resources just ask!). At the start of the positive education lesson students come in and take part in either mindfulness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTCXcxLjNcA) or diaphragmatic breathing. Once they have done this we may talk about being mindful in different lessons during the week or in other aspects of their lives, e.g, having conversations with friends or family (and not being glued to their phones when they are engaging in conversation). After that students will take part in a lesson from the programme, for example recently we have been looking at ‘good sense’ and ‘head over heart’ decision making. In every lesson we also try to link everything back to the brain and how it works. This may sound odd to some people but if you think about it every decision you make starts and ends in the brain. It is an incredible and complex organ (the only organ that can vote!) that often (more than you realise!) works on natural hardwired drives and instincts. The brain is also underdeveloped in adolescents, something I think we forget or do not realise as teachers. Therefore educating students in this area is crucial and it kind of glues everything together. We work closely with Prof Steve Peters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-KI1D5NPJs) and his team at Chimp Managemet – well recommended to teachers who really want to give students a life-long skill (they are a great bunch!).
Although the talk was very brief, my colleague Carl Brown (who spoke about a programme we run called ‘Get to the Start Line’) and I were received some excellent feedback for the work we had done. What I have explained is only part of what we do and there are other programmes and lessons in place. But why we do it is what is most important – to give students the best opportunity possible to be the best version of themselves that they can be. We are teaching them life-skills which will be vital to them whilst navigating their way through adolescence and into adult-hood. ‘You’ is surely the most important subject to a student and understanding who you are should be a priority (motivated by a moral purpose) for schools to teach.
It was interesting to hear what all the other wellbeing projects schools were doing. Unfortunately the frustrating fact is that although many schools do a lot of excellent wellbeing work, it is schools themselves and of no fault of their own, that are part of the wellbeing problem. This is because of exams and the pressure the government puts on schools to get the right grades. Whether it is SATS in primary school, end of topic subject tests, mock exams, GCSE exams or A-Level exams it is putting huge pressure on our young students. When you think about it scientifically we are putting students through highly stressful situations in which their fight or flight response system is being tricked into kicking in and we are doing this over prolonged periods of time – that is simply not healthy for their bodies and counter-intuitive to the wellbeing work many schools are doing. I have seen students display full on ‘grief reaction’ before, during and after tests and exams. Yet whilst the government tries to climb the international education league tables (PISA in particular) exams are not going anywhere. Who knows, maybe we will improve and move up these tables. But at what cost and to who’s benefit? This current level of exam pressure will certainly not improve student wellbeing of which UNICEF ranked the UK 16/29 on a recent wellbeing study. Interestingly, many Scandinavian countries were in the top 10 for wellbeing, with Finland in 4th. Although Finland may have dropped in the most recent PISA rankings, they topped them in 2000, 2003 and 2006 and until recently were still pretty high. Nevertheless they offer a refreshing education system which values true knowledge over frequent standardised testing, teach to test narrow curriculums and all the accountability that goes with it. What is more interesting is the changes that Finland made to their education system came some 40 years ago, they really were ahead of their time. Maybe its time our education took a maverick approach such as Finland.
For any change to happen Nicky Morgan must listen to the teachers who are seeing first hand on a daily basis just how much pressure her system is putting on students and how it is turning schools into exam farms. If she listened to what psychologists and neurologists were saying about the effects of exam stress on the brain then maybe she would think about a complete overhaul of standardised testing in our schools. With all the evidence out there she could really go down in history as someone who made a real change to education for the better of the students. Remember teachers are not saying completely get rid of assessment, far from it as this is essential to any education system. But there has to be a better more healthier way than present. Einsteins definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results… So if Nicky Morgan is genuinely interested in improving the wellbeing of our students as she so often says maybe she needs to do something different….