Measuring student wellbeing- how do we know if what we’re doing is working?

Sarah Eggleton has been an English teacher for 12 years. She currently works at a Secondary School in inner city Manchester where she is Head of English and Assistant Headteacher; with responsibility for marking and feedback, metacognition, literacy, parent engagement and staff development. 

Although Covid-19 has created many, many challenges, one of the positives to come out of the experience is a nationwide understanding and acceptance of the importance of mental health. Thanks to the media, the impact of Covid on young people’s mental health has been widely accepted and discussed. The problem has been identified and now the conversation can move to the solution.

Effective schools have always championed the wellbeing of pupils, as a minimum through safeguarding; but more often than not through pastoral structures, rewards and events/ extra-curricular activities that celebrate success and allow for social interaction and enjoyment. It is only now we have seen the very real impact of isolation that the conversation has moved to how schools can support students to help themselves tolook after their wellbeing.

Wellbeing, if it wasn’t already, can now squarely be considered as a fundamental part of effective education, rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ add on.

When addressing wellbeing in schools there are two things to consider.

  1. What does wellbeing mean to our students?
  2. How do we know what we’re doing is working?

If you wish to improve your school’s wellbeing strategy then the first place to start, as it always should be, is with the students. Use a student voice survey or focus group to define what wellbeing means to them – their perception of it could be very different from an adult perspective, and even more so with regards to wellbeing within a school setting. It might be worth taking some time to consider what life is like from the point of view of a student in your school. Shadow a KS4 student for a day and see what they actually experience moving from lesson to lesson of high expectations, success criteria and fast paced tasks.

Once you’ve established what you’re aiming to measure then consider how you could go about achieving the goal.

For example; some people strongly relate mental health and wellbeing in school, with a sense of belonging to the school community. So, you may want to begin by identifying opportunities to promote this aspect of wellbeing throughout the school year. Look to policies to identify opportunities that currently exist to audit what current practice looks like and identify areas for development. For example; within the rewards system are there built in opportunities for team-building trips? Does the reward system reward academic achievement only? Could you increase the opportunities available to celebrate effort to emphasise growth mindset, and group or class achievements to create a school culture?

You may consider a curriculum audit and a review of the teaching and learning policy. To ensure wellbeing isn’t an ‘add-on’ in your school, identify topics within every subject in which it could be possible to build in metacognitive reflection about how emotions and feelings have impacted performance within a unit of work, and explore how challenges have been overcome. Celebrate personal strengths and identify learning points within the learning process. This open and honest discussion, once a respectful space has been established, will leave students feeling more comfortable accepting struggling as part of the learning process and identifying coping mechanisms they can apply independently in future.

Thinking back to that ‘student experience’ of school might result in considering timetabling, an overhaul of social spaces, access to ‘quiet zones’ or a review of assessment ‘pinch points’ which might leave students feeling pressured and stressed. At an operational level does your school support students to focus on their wellbeing?

Whatever you identify as lacking in your school’s approach to wellbeing; my advice would be to start small. Pick one technique or strategy and try it out on a small cohort. For example, one class per year group, or one-year group in one subject. Use a student voice baseline and recomplete the same student voice after several weeks of using the strategy, to gain qualitative data on the impact. Match this with tracking student outcomes in the subject or class chosen. Compare this to the outcomes of a control group – students who have not experienced the strategy selected. This will be a more concrete way of defining how successful your strategy has been.

Once you have completed a cycle from baseline, use of strategy over several weeks (ideally a term, minimum) to progress data – share your findings. Use the data to inform your next steps – if it worked and you noticed an improvement in the student voice outcomes or in the pupil progress data, or (hopefully!) both; celebrate this success with colleagues and share your good practice. Could it be improved? How? Could it be extended – wider reach, sharing with home, staff training?

This cycle of measuring progress is such an important one in helping us, as professionals, develop our practice and hone our skills. Measuring progress often gets a bad rep, because yes, there is an inevitable workload involved. However, I’d argue it’s better to do the work and know the impact than try something for a few weeks and never know what you’ve achieved. Being a reflective practitioner is a teaching standard, one that I think is probably one of the most rewarding ones. As teachers we love to learn – so if your strategy isn’t having the intended impact, you will learn from your mistakes. On the other hand, if it has a positive impact you can identify and celebrate your success. Both of these are, coincidentally, fundamental to our own professional wellbeing.

Written by Sarah Eggleton

This blog is part of a series looking at the importance of student wellbeing and successful strategies for a whole school approach. On our wellbeing page you will find our previous blogs including Could student wellbeing be linked to academic achievement? where we looked at the evaluation findings from an Evidence analysis impact study exploring any potential links between wellbeing and student outcomes. Here you will also find a range of practical resources and guidance on wellbeing for parents and teachers, developed by experts.