• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

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Teaching children how to be happy

When 15-year-old Charlie Maughan takes his position at the side of the pool for a big swimming meet next week, he will be thinking about techniques he learnt in “well-being class” as well as in PE.

“Before the competition, I will close my eyes, slow my breath and visualise the positive aspects of what could happen,” he said. “And because of the meditation, I feel more confident and less jittery when I walk out.”

Charlie is one of the pupils at the £24,000-a-year Wellington College, in Berkshire, who has benefited from fortnightly “happiness classes”, introduced last year.

Designed by Ian Morris, the school’s head of philosophy and religion, along with Nick Baylis, the director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University, the programme gives pupils practical skills in areas as diverse as meditation, channelling “negative” emotions and drug and alcohol safety. There is even a session on “dumping” a boyfriend or girlfriend. It has been championed by the master of the school, Anthony Seldon, one of the independent sector’s most high profile heads.

The scheme has been so successful that next month the college will host a conference where headmasters and teachers from across the state and independent sectors will sit through one of the 40-minute lessons and learn how they can be applied.
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The adoption of “well-being” classes at a traditional public school demonstrates the extent to which emotional intelligence, a term coined in 1995 by American psychologists, is fast becoming education orthodoxy in Britain. It has spawned a multi-million pound industry of consultants, publishers and educational training.

Ministers have embraced the idea that emotional literacy — defined as the ability to perceive, access and regulate emotions — should be part of the state curriculum. Schools now have a statutory obligation to promote children’s mental, emotional and social well-being.

Extensive curriculum guidance, produced by the Department for Education and Skills and sent to England’s 23,000 primary schools, recommends that all children, regardless of age, background or ability, be given sessions in talking about their emotions.

To teach pupils how to make friends, resolve squabbles and “manage their anger”, it suggests using a quiz called “Guess what I am feeling?”, or designing an “emotional barometer” so children can rate the strength of their feelings.

Secondary schools are also being encouraged to put emotional literacy on the timetable this year, with staff focusing on five areas: self-awareness, empathy, managing feelings, self-motivation and social interaction.

Government guidance to primary heads revealed why it was felt necessary to teach characteristics that many regard as part of a good upbringing.

“The breakdown of the extended family and communities, and the higher rates of divorce and one-parent- families, have led to a shake-up of the belief that we can leave children’s emotional and social development to parents,” it said.

Exponents of emotional literacy believe that children who arrive at school angry, anxious or depressed cannot learn until those barriers have been removed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the techniques are having an impact on behaviour and motivation.

However, a few dissenters have raised concerns about the rise in “therapeutic education”. Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Kent University and author of Therapy Culture, fears that academic and moral education are being jettisoned for the easy option of discussing emotions.

“In pushing emotional literacy what some teachers are really doing is abandoning teaching,” he said. “They are giving up, talking about emotions instead, so that children value all this non-discipline-led activity more than maths, English or science. What is amazing about this is that time and time again, research says that it does not work. Self-esteem education produces no positive outcomes.

“My view is that it is actually harmful. The more we talk about self-esteem in schools, the more kids become obsessed with their emotions and the more they have emotional problems. Children who talk about being ‘stressed’ play the role of being stressed. It normalises and promotes the behaviour.”

Prof Furedi said that Shakespeare and Jane Austen had more to teach children about emotions than the substandard materials used in much therapeutic education.

“If you want children to feel happy and stable, you make them feel good about their achievements in their school work. What is particularly pernicious is that it will be working-class kids who will bear the brunt of this — a third-rate education, but lots of emotional literacy.”

Dennis Hayes, the head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University, also raised concerns about a widespread emotional literacy agenda that is “anti-intellectual and potentially destructive”.

“In some schools, it is filling a vacuum that is being left by the downplaying of knowledge,” he said.

“Students in schools like Wellington will then go off and do Latin and the sciences. The problem is that this balance is being lost to children elsewhere.”

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