Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The big bang theory

Man looking through telescope

Programmes like SEAL encourage 21st century children to see themselves as the centre of the universe - and thereby undermine their ability to cope emotionally with life in the real world, argues Dr Carol Craig.

Repeatedly I'm told by schools that one of the main shifts in society is that the majority of parents now believe that it is a terrible thing if their child has a bad day or a bad experience. Everyday they have a queue of parents wishing to complain about children not doing well in tests, not getting parts in the school play or falling out with friends.

The subtext here is that the child is the centre of the universe; no other child matters and the child can do no wrong. The teachers can see that this is leading to a protective environment where there is a fear of challenging children in case the child has a negative experience and that this is undermining young people's resilience.

What is particularly worrying about this is that our young people are likely to face colossal challenges - melting polar ice caps, disturbed weather patterns, a debt mountain and insecure employment - yet we are bringing them up to believe it is a terrible thing if they don't get the main part in the school play, fall out with friends, or lose at school sports.

If we inject into this an emphasis on happiness or even wellbeing I don't see how it is not going to make it worse. Of course, psychological experts can then say "this is not what we mean by happiness" and then give their definition but the world doesn't work like this. It is not sophisticated ideas that get transmitted through a culture but watered-down versions.

Narcissism of the age

What I'm really concerned about is the next great psychological idea in the offing - the SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) programme. This is about emotional literacy and increasingly about happiness lessons. One of the strands of primary SEAL is called 'good to be me' and much of it is a focus on the self.

All this emphasis on feelings is, I believe, going to reinforce - not counteract - the narcissism of the age and is likely to undermine resilience further. The potential for ironic effects with psychological interventions, particularly mass psychological interventions, is enormous.

Another big issue at stake here is this: what is the appropriate role for schools and what for families? Historically the family has socialised children, been responsible for their health and wellbeing and taught them about life and how to handle it. Schools have been about education.

However, the government (and this government in particular) has increasingly stood this on its head. What was the Department for Education is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families - note the word order.

It is schools which the government sees as the way to socialise young people and influence their wellbeing. The family is being put in the back seat. This is why schools are being saddled with more and more responsibilities and functions.

What doesn't make sense about this is that schools only have young people for 15 per cent of their time - schools can never replace the family, unless they become boarding schools.

The attempt to make schools take over the function of the family will make some parents withdraw even more as the responsible people in the child's life. Of course, this will encourage them not just to say "oh don't worry about that, the school teaches them all about it" but also to conveniently blame the school if the child does anything problematic.

What's more the government is tackling the socialisation of children in exactly the same centralised way that it carries out other tasks - through tick boxes, learning outcomes, targets, goal setting etc. Our emotional lives are the most intimate part of us but now young people's emotions and feelings are to be the subject of professional control and scrutiny; young people's personalities have to be moulded to what is considered suitable.

Assertiveness training

There is a huge difference between giving young people information or access to some training, for example on assertiveness, which they can then decide to accept or reject, and saying "you should be assertive and you need to set goals for becoming more so".

I have never argued that no good work could happen under the SEAL banner but what I have argued, and still passionately believe, is that the SEAL vision for the formal teaching of every child (irrespective of need) from the ages of 3-18, about social and emotional skills (primarily about feelings) in a classroom with a professional, supported by a set of learning outcomes and an evaluation framework is not a positive step.

It is a distraction from the real, cultural challenges to young people's wellbeing and, far from simply being a waste of money and time, it may actually make matters worse.

Schools are primarily about education. They should not be exam factories and they should be interested in the development and education of the whole child but this should be done in ways that are relevant to education not to therapy, psychology, counselling or mental health work.

Of course, children who need this type of support should get it but it should not be the norm. If it is then the personalities of future children will be decided and moulded by professionals.

Dr Carol Craig is chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow. She gave one of the keynote addresses at ASCL's annual conference in March.

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