All secondary schools could do with a head of well-being

Teachers need a hand getting the message across. Wellbeing blackboard via pupunkkop/Shutterstock

Children’s character and well-being looks set to be a central education issue going into the 2015 general election. Getting out of the starting blocks in mid-December, Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education, unveiled a £3.5m fund to offer character-building classes, insisting that fostering resilience and “grit” is just as important as helping pupils achieve good grades. Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, then warned of a ticking time bomb if schools did not make young people’s happiness and well-being a big priority in the year ahead.

But what is the best way of making sure all schools take well-being seriously? A new discussion paper published by the 2020health think tank has suggested that appointing a head of well-being in every state secondary school could be the answer. Researchers Julia Manning and Jon Paxman argue that schools’ current health and well-being strategies are making little or no impact in a significant number of schools and that a head of well-being could help address this.

Pupil and staff well-being both key

The researchers quote a 2013 report from England’s school inspectorate Ofsted which estimated that the quality of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education was below acceptable standards in 40% of schools. Ofsted itself had faced criticism in 2012 for casting well-being into the dustbin by making it less obvious in its new inspection framework.

A 2014 report from the Legatum Institute stated that after parents, schools are the next big influence in the way a child will develop. Although some recent evidence is encouraging, with teenage pregnancy at an all-time low and reduced cases of obesity in young teenage girls, the picture of pupil well-being in England is not wholly positive.

The 2020health paper highlights worrying data on undiagnosed mental health problems, high rates of sexually transmitted infections, weight problems, poor diet and low engagement in physical activity among children and young people.

Staff well-being is also put under scrutiny in the discussion paper, which echoes the findings of 2007 research by psychologists Rob Briner and Chris Dewberry at Birkbeck College that staff well-being is a key to school success. It can also be central to keeping teachers motivated. In a 2013 survey by the teachers’ union NASUWT, 65% of teachers stated that they had considered leaving their job in the past year, while 54% had considered leaving teaching completely.

Setting time aside

For their report, the 2020health researchers sought opinion from staff at six state schools in England on whether the appointment of a head of well-being would be beneficial to the whole school community. Of the 68 staff surveyed, 59% supported the need for a full-time post of head of well-being within the state secondary school system.

When pupils at the schools were then asked to recommend how a full-time member of staff could support the well-being of students in the school, the responses were quite different to what the staff had suggested. The majority of their ideas centred around enrichment activities such as more clubs, career discussions and volunteering opportunities.

In my experience as a director of well-being at a further education college in Wales, these activities are vital to encouraging pupils to enhance their well-being rather than just aiming to maintain it. As the report acknowledges, schools sometimes need to rely on support from external agencies to deliver such activities. This is vital both in terms of making some additional funding available via grants, but mainly because of the wealth of expert knowledge these agencies can offer.

Too much for one person?

The suggested tasks for the role in the report covered seven key areas co-ordinating well-being initiatives for staff, pupils and parents. These include offering teaching and counselling staff support, co-ordinating services across the educational and pastoral care teams, improving the health of pupils across the school and encouraging them to do physical exercise, expanding the PSHE and citizenship agenda, and increasing the engagement of parents.

With such an impressive wish-list I would agree with the objection raised by some members of the staff focus groups that it might not be possible for a head of well-being to be expert in so many areas.

In my own experience, I often felt that expectations of what I could achieve in my role were very high. In fact one day I remember a tutor introducing me to her class and saying: “It is her job to make us happy.”

The report offers three possible models that schools could follow in their appointment of a head of well-being, giving suggested roles and job specifications for each. Across the three models, it sets out eight common tasks for the job, ranging from co-ordinating prevention of pupil mental health problems, to increasing parent engagement.

Making mental health a priority. Child mental health via Lightspring/Shutterstock

The authors also suggest the kind of experiences and qualifications somebody filling this role would need to have, including educational experience alongside counselling and medical capability. My concern would be that recruitment would be extremely difficult if not impossible. With such a workload, it would be a shame if the head of well-being is the one member of staff with the lowest level of well-being.

The focus on well-being in our schools is vital if we are going to fulfil the government’s 2010 Foresight Report’s view of well-being in which: “an individual is able to fulfil their personal goals and achieve a sense of purpose in society.”

But my own research has highlighted the fact that any attempt to enhance well-being is difficult to achieve without a clear definition of what individuals consider well-being to be. The new report clearly shows that staff and pupils see well-being differently and the authors accept that their suggestion will need to be explored further by involving health and education experts in the development of the role.