School well-being league tables: a view for and against

Rank schools by pupil wellbeing to tackle mental health ‘crisis’, says former leading head. shutterstock

Parents searching for school places are used to scouring league tables and Ofsted ratings to find the best schools in their local area. But do these rankings really give a true picture of what school life will be like for their children?

One suggestion by a former headteacher was for children’s well-being to be measured more effectively in schools. Anthony Seldon, a university head and mental health campaigner, said school league tables should start to include measures of well-being to help tackle an “epidemic of mental health” problems in schools across the UK.

But the idea of introducing well-being rankings that would mimic exam league tables has been met with mixed responses by those in education.

Below, two experts give their thoughts on the idea.

‘League tables are crude and misleading’

Jessica Deighton is the deputy director of the Evidence Based Practice Unit at University College London and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families

The reality of children’s mental health is deeply worrying – at least two children in every primary school class will have a diagnosable mental health condition and one in eight will have one or more mental health conditions at any time. The case for change is clear. But the call made by Seldon to address this issue using well-being league tables is not the answer.

Ranking schools on the basis of pupils’ survey responses is dangerous as it risks oversimplifying the picture of schools’ support of mental health and well-being. It also runs the risk of a well-being measure being used as another stick to beat some schools with. Or for schools with a different type of intake – such as those with a smaller proportion of special educational needs, or with a wealthy catchment area – to bask in effectively unearned kudos for their “well-being performance”.

There are dangers of turning well-being support into another box-ticking exercise. Shutterstock

Schools are quite often the first line of response in early intervention for children’s mental health needs. The opportunity for timely support and signposting is huge – and many schools know this only too well. Schools often report struggling to prioritise well-being in a system that is so heavily skewed toward academic outcomes, but league tables are too crude and potentially misleading to effectively move the agenda on.

Instead Ofsted should be encouraged to actively assess schools on their mental health and well-being policies and action. Some schools are doing fantastic work in this area – and it is not necessarily recognised or credited – but these practices are by no means uniform across schools. Despite a new inspection framework being introduced, in practice Ofsted reports still barely mention mental health and well-being. And unless mental well-being becomes part of the inspection framework in a very concrete sense, the patchy practice and uncertainty will endure.

But there are other things that can be done. Teachers should receive mental health training as part of their formal education to effectively support their students. Schools should also be using tried and tested well-being tools to understand the needs of their students and evaluate their practice.

As well as holding schools more accountable for what they are doing to support pupil mental health and well-being, specific monitoring of policies and practices around mental health and well-being in schools by Ofsted will also help to incentivise schools to have progressive policies and programmes in place.

We should train teachers in mental health. Shutterstock

‘Benefits for staff and students’

Rachel Dodge is a researcher at Cardiff Metropolitan University interested in enhancing well-being in further education students

Although there may be many arguments against the measuring of well-being and the existence of school league tables, there is no denying that both are here to stay. So even though there has been some concern about measuring well-being there is a growing consensus in academia, as well as policy, that the question is not whether to measure well-being, but how. And at a time when exam league tables in England are due to be overhauled, there is a strong argument that the inclusion of a measure of well-being would be a useful addition.

Seldon made a clear point: “As long as the only metric on which schools are being assessed is their exam performance, our schools will never have the incentive to take well-being as seriously as they should”.

This stems from the concern that school league tables lead schools to place their energy and focus onto what is being measured. So if well-being is not included as a measurement there is a danger that it could be sidelined or ignored by schools. But by including well-being as a measure it would gain equal status with academic achievement – something that Seldon strongly believes parents looks for when choosing the school that is best suited for their child.

Parents care about their children’s well-being. Shutterstock

At a time where our education system is in the spotlight for underachieving with rankings indicating that the UK is failing to make progress, an increased focus on well-being in our schools may help to change the direction of this trend – by increasing students’ use of strategies to face the challenge of examinations.

A further benefit of the inclusion of well-being in school league tables is the impact it could have on staff. Research from a number of well-being programmes has highlighted that the delivery of these programmes led to increased teacher wellbeing and job satisfaction.

In my own research, teachers who delivered a ten-week intervention programme to enhance student well-being, noted how they had started to implement some of the well-being strategies into their own life – such as reassessing their own sleep patterns, as well as considering how their internal thought processes affected the way they felt in their jobs.

The programme also had an effect on the way they perceived their students. One teacher explained how teaching a session on the brain helped her to have a better understanding of how adolescents develop. This led to her stating that she had learned to “appreciate them a bit more”. Another teacher accepted that a task within a session on individual thought patterns made her realise that she didn’t praise her students enough. Making it clear that an increased focus on well-being in schools could only lead to benefits for our education system and those in it.