Once more, with feeling: the latest attempt to teach flourishing in schools



This week I’d like to examine the latest attempt to teach young people how to flourish in schools, via a new randomised controlled trial of a new Personal and Social Health Education curriculum, which is being launched in 30 English schools this autumn. As regular readers know, the attempt to teach people how to flourish is a subject close to my heart- indeed, my book, Philosophy for Life, imagines a ‘dream school’ that does just that.

Teaching flourishing has a long history. We could go back to the 19th century, when private schools tried to teach character through a combination of muscular Christianity and the classics, or all the way back to philosophy schools like Plato's Acaedemy or Aristotle's Lyceum. But let's start more recently than that (I hear you breathe a collective sigh of relief) and begin in the late 1990s, when New Labour became interested in bringing psychotherapy into politics.

The idea of teaching well-being in schools took off in the UK after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. That book inspired a local education authority in Southampton to introduce EI classes in its schools, through a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Other LEAs followed Southampton's example, and in 2002, Ed Balls, the minister for education, made SEAL a non-statutory component in the national primary curriculum, as one part of a new subject called Personal and Social Health Education, or PSHE (sorry for all these acronyms). In 2007 it was introduced in the national curriculum for secondary schools. Although it was voluntary, around 80% of comprehensives taught SEAL in some form.

Despite the enormous, almost religious enthusiasm of LEAs and New Labour, SEAL rapidly attracted controversy. Some, like Kathryn Ecclestone at the University of Birmingham, criticised the ‘dangerous rise of therapeutic education’, where children were taught that a certain model of emotionality was ‘good’ and other models ‘bad’ or ‘sick’. Indeed, Goleman’s EI argues that the healthy child is socially-skilled and happy to publicly share their emotions - in other words, the healthy child is a girl. Boys or introverts, who may be reluctant to publicly discuss their emotions in circles, are immediately pathologised.



Another problem with SEAL was that schools were given very little guidance in how to teach it beyond a SEAL pack sent out from Whitehall. Only a fifth of teachers have any training in SEAL or PSHE. Many schools made it up as they went along, and SEAL classes included everything from CBT to rainbow rhythms. This, to some extent, reflected the intellectual incoherence of Goleman’s pop psychology book (Goleman wasn't a trained psychologist, he was a journalist for the New York Times).

The big problem with SEAL, which a team at the University of Manchester discovered and reported in 2010, was that it didn’t do what it was meant to do. It had no impact either on children’s emotional well-being or their academic performance. Somehow, in all the enthusiasm, no one had thought to evaluate it until it had been in our schools and imposed on our children for a decade. I find that cavalier attitude pretty shocking, and a classic example of the policy risks of good intentions without good evidence.

The realisation that SEAL lacked any evidence base seriously undermined the idea of teaching flourishing in schools, and also undermined LEAs in the eyes of the new Coalition government. When Michael Gove became minister for education, he rolled back many of New Labour’s well-being initiatives in schools, abandoning Every Child Matter and insisting that OFSTED no longer try to evaluate the well-being of pupils. Gove also ordered a review of PSHE. That review is on-going - it was supposed to have published its results by now, but apparently the Department of Education has its hands full with its academy and free school programme. The government has at least made clear it doesn't think much of SEAL.

The Penn Resilience Project

However, there was another attempt to teach young people how to flourish in a more evidence-based way. This was the Penn Resilience Project (PRP), which was designed by Karen Reivich, Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. It was an attempt to introduce the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy into classrooms, with the same evidence-based scrupulosity with which Penn's Aaron Beck brought CBT into the mainstream of therapy.

In 2007, three local education authorities (Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside) paid to send around 100 teachers to Penn to be trained in the PRP, and then to teach it in 22 schools. The impact on students’ academic results and emotional well-being was then evaluated by a team at the London School of Economics. One of the driving forces behind the PRP was Richard Layard, professor at the LSE and the author of Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, who had also been instrumental in getting government support for the huge expansion of CBT services in the NHS.

The PRP was the great hope of enthusiasts for well-being education, because it was supposed to be carefully scientific and evidence-based compared to SEAL. Unfortunately, when project evaluation was published by the LSE in 2011, the results were not a home-run. Amy Challen, one of the project evaluators at the LSE, tells me:

There was a 0.1 standard deviation for participants on the Beck Depression Index, and that quickly tailed off after the project finished. That's quite small. There are lots of possible reasons for that. Most young people don’t have depression in the first place. Also children were only taught 18 hours of the course in total - as Richard Layard said, you can’t learn French in 18 hours and it may be the same for well-being. There were problems with recruitment of teachers as well. Twenty of the teachers didn’t teach any PRP workshop, and some only taught one. And some teachers had excessive expectations - they thought you could teach the programme and everyone’s life would be transformed. They would focus on individual cases where they saw transformations, and not understand why that impact didn’t show up in the data. It’s because that was just one child among 30.

During the PRP pilot, Richard Layard and two colleagues decided to be more ambitious, and to try and gather together the best evidence-based programmes from around the world (well, the US, UK and Australia) not just for emotional well-being but for the entire PSHE curriculum, which also includes topics like sexual and physical health, media awareness, and also occasionally citizenship, environmental awareness, and even (shock horror) moral philosophy. Last year, they published a report outlining their new, evidence-based curriculum for PSHE, which brought together around 16 evidence-based programmes, including PRP and other CBT and mindfulness-based programmes. Layard wanted to test this curriculum out over a longer period, to give the children the time to really learn the cognitive and behavioural skills embedded in the course. James O’ Shaughnessy, former head of the Downing Street policy unit under David Cameron, who is a big enthusiast for teaching flourishing, told me: ‘One of the things we know from the evidence is the importance of habit formation. That takes time.’



The new curriculum is now being road-tested in a randomised controlled trial at 30 schools around the South-East of England, starting in autumn of this year. The RCT is being funded through a £687,000 grant from the Education Endowment Fund, and is being evaluated by the LSE. The teaching and teacher-training is being organised by Emma Judge and Lucy Bailey, who helped to run the original PRP pilot for Hertfordshire local education authority, and who subsequently set up a not-for-profit called How To Thrive. Through that, they have trained 700 teachers to teach the resilience programme in 80 schools around the country. Emma Judge says: ‘The initial PRP pilot was just 18 hours. The research suggests that people can learn new habits but it’s hard work and takes practice.’ The new project will teach children an hour a week, over four years, and will cover all the topics of PSHE, including media / advertising awareness, drug awareness and sexual health, bringing together evidence-based programmes like the PRP, Mood Gym from Australia, and the Parents Under Construction programme from Houston.

Lucy Bailey says: ‘An important idea is that this is a proper subject, which is valued in schools, which teachers can talk about, which students see as valued by the school. In the initial project, some schools felt ‘don’t go into that classroom, they talk about feelings there’.’ Emma adds: ‘We used to get a lot of nervousness from teachers with the original PRP, who were worried they would be opening up a can of worms by venturing into the emotions. But that’s reduced now, because teachers realize it’s not about that. Some experiences would not be suitable for the classroom and would be handled differently, through the school’s counseling services.’

The tricky question of values

I ask Lucy and Emma if the new curriculum is trying to teach young people values. This seems to me the thorny question for both PSHE and Positive Psychology in schools. On the one hand, they are attempts to help young people to flourish. On the other hand, there is an understandable nervousness about state schools promoting a particular ethical vision of the good life (there’s much less nervousness about this in private schools, perhaps because they're less multicultural in their pupil demographics, and because parents know what sort of ethical culture they're paying for).

Emma says: 'Positive Psychology does face that value question, and we’re involved in the designing of a Positive Psychology whole-school approach for Wellington College. But this PSHE curriculum is much more about skills and awareness than values. Of course, we don’t want kids to take drugs, or get drunk, or have unprotected sex, but there’s nothing more invasive than that.’ Lucy adds: ‘We want to strengthen young people’s capacity to make their own decisions. Of course at year 7 or 8 we say ‘it’s better not to take drugs’, but at year 9 or 10 we say ‘what’s your view?’ We want to help people develop their own value system. A Catholic school might have a very particular set of ideas about sex, for example, while we’re not trying to influence young people in any one way on that topic. We’re not saying how they should be.’

This is, of course, a tricky area. It’s one I grapple with in my book too. You can leave out values from the curriculum altogether and say you’re just teaching ‘life-skills’, but that risks leaving children in a moral vacuum, where you sacrifice children on the altar of your own liberal tolerance (wow, quite a melodramatic metaphor there). Or you can opt to include explicit values in the curriculum, but then you risk indoctrinating young people in your own unexamined dogma, drilled into them Madrasah-style, rather than enabling people to develop an autonomous and sceptical mind-set. The challenge is balancing indoctrination with skepticism, balancing inherited wisdom with a freedom to choose one’s own path. This is not an easy trick to pull off, and requires a great deal of skill, wisdom and humanity from the teacher.

I would still love to see more ethical discussion in PSHE, perhaps to combine it with Religious Education and moral philosophy, or at least to introduce more Socratic discussions about different models of the good life into the classroom - particularly in year 11, year 12, and at university. Life-skills are the means, but it’s useful also to think about the ends. I wish the new project the best of luck over the next four years. I'm not sure what the government plans to do with PSHE in the meantime.


Here is a new brief collection of brief articles by Tory MPs on mental health. It's interesting as an example of how mainstream mental health policy has now become. The MPs argue for new policies including greater provision of mental health services for soldiers and veterans, and greater choice of therapies for people besides CBT on the NHS.

Here is a new report from the World Economic Forum on creating a more evidence-based and quantifiable approach to well-being in the workplace.

Action for Happiness has published an interesting new report on the role of values in happiness and well-being.

A great article in Nature magazine on ritual and its role in societies.

The New York Times notes a new genre, the self-help memoire. The Guardian thinks that Sheila Heti's new bestseller work of 20-something funny angst could be described as a self-help mash-up. And of course, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series Girls, is writing a sort of self-help mash-up too. Self-help is gradually becoming hip, mark my words...

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Can autism be outgrown, asks Time Magazine.

My brother and another friend are both involved in the complex attempt to come up with new UN Millennium Development Goals. Not an easy task, as this Guardian editorial notes.

This week I have been mainly listening to new albums by Toro Y Moi (weird indie R&B) and Matthew E. White (sort of intelligent and quiet soul); I have been mainly reading Elijah Wald's excellent book on the history of rock and roll; and mainly watching this wonderful documentary, also about the history of rock 'n roll. Can't wait to see Zero Dark Thirty this weekend.

See you next week,