The consensus around the importance of wellbeing is uncontentious among politicians, school leaders and parents. However, all too often wellbeing is pitched against education – a short sighted approach and as futile as asking what is more important in a game of soccer – the football or the players?
Wellbeing is essential for learning, and learning benefits wellbeing – it is a interdependent relationship.
Therefore, the next task for school leaders is to consider how to marry the two in an authentic, harmonious and sustainable way – if I might paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell – ‘Visionaries start with a clean sheet of paper and reimagine the world of education’. I am drawn to this idea for two reasons. One is to caution against overloading an already full curriculum by squeezing in wellbeing initiatives (and to highlight the important question of ‘what comes out’). And two, because it encourages us to embrace the concept of collective responsibility for wellbeing within a school community.
This may initially appear quite a laborious task, but a clear and structured wellbeing framework along with shared ownership of its implementation will enhance wellbeing and learning, without overburdening a small number of colleagues.
Cognita is a diverse and global schools group prioritizing wellbeing in nearly 80 schools and these were some of the things that helped us on our journey moving wellbeing from being someone’s job to everyone’s job.
- Define and explain. Whilst there is no universal definition of wellbeing, establishing an agreed, unambiguous and common language to describe what it is and what contributes to it is important, and also addresses what it is not. Without this, staff may lack the confidence or belief that they have a role in enhancing wellbeing and parents are unlikely to understand how best to reinforce the school’s efforts at home. Take a look at Cognita’s Wellbeing Charter to inspire your own.
- Evidence, evidence, evidence. Use evidence to support your definition and explanation – this will pre-empt the inevitable questions from parents, students and staff. Evidence is a compelling way to show that wellbeing is intrinsically linked to better outcomes. Having a tiered approach to the way your evidence is presented up front, making it accessible for all audiences, might also be helpful.
- Empower your team. Armed with your definition, contributors and supporting evidence, highlight the collective ownership and responsibility of all members of the school community – highlight the interconnectivity of the relationship between staff, students and parents. Begin by asking your staff teams how they can weave in elements of wellbeing into their everyday teaching and interactions in the corridor and playground, or how they can fit it into recruitment and admissions. Consult parents about how they might be able to support wellbeing in school and what would support them as parents at home so home and school is joined up. Decide together what your whole school wellbeing priorities might be (e.g. having a focus on kindness and gratitude) but also allow teachers, students and parents to enrich wellbeing in their individual ways. These might take the form of the student council deciding to have their meetings walking and talking, the Physics teacher starting every lesson with mindful breathing, the security guard making a point of connecting with students as they walk in with a smile or greeting or a parent reinforcing lessons learnt at school at home.
- Appoint your lead person. Whilst all members of the school community should contribute to the culture of wellbeing, such an important priority does need leadership and a central point of communication to ensure a consistent approach between staff, parents and students. This person or team deserves the time and needs the authority to do this well. If the role is a meaningful and important one, then it cannot be added on to an already full job description and needs thoughtful and creative redesigning of responsibilities.
- Assessing your progress. Assessment of how a school contributes to the wellbeing of its community is not a simple task, and not something that a single number can explain. However, if wellbeing is at the heart of your school, then exploring ways to measure the impact of your actions is important and will better steer the path in future. Wellbeing will be reflected in your students’ attendance, their extra-curricular participation, their attainment, their relationships, their confidence and their ambitions. I often think that a really valuable measurement of the efficacy of wellbeing in schools would be checking in with students when they are 25 years old– that would be a good indication of the sustainability, depth and value of what they understood about their own health at school. It may be reflected in parent feedback and staff retention, engagement in school life, or their own reflections about the role of the contributors to wellbeing in their lives. Working together to assess how best to ‘measure what you treasure’ is another way of solidifying that whole school approach.
In education, we often talk about striving to make lifelong learners, but ambitions for wellbeing should be similarly aligned to this concept, after all, there is perhaps no more important lesson than how to look after your physical and mental health. Wellbeing is a journey, not a destination, but it must be a collective journey in schools – that is how wellbeing will be promoted from conversation to culture.
Beth Kerr is Group Wellbeing Director at Cognita, the global schools’ group, and an experienced media commentator on young people’s wellbeing. She is responsible for ensuring that Cognita’s commitment to wellbeing leads to better academic achievement and character development for children and young people, as well as giving them a global perspective.
Beth is an experienced teacher and educational leader specialising in pastoral care and wellbeing, has taught in the state and independent sector and is also a Team Inspector at the Independent Schools Inspectorate. She finished her MSc from UCL in Child and Adolescent Mental Health in 2018, and is passionate about the role of educators in improving the wellbeing of young people today. She has a special interest in ensuring that children and young people are the masters of their technology, rather than its servant!