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The ‘Wellbeing ecosystem’: an essential condition for learning and achievement for all schools

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With Teresa May’s recent pledge that every secondary school teacher will receive free mental health training, the profile of mental health and schools is raised once again. Do schools view wellbeing as an ‘added extra’ or firmly embedded within the culture and ethos of success? Penny Webb explores the research of Sue Roffey and argues that an eco-systemic model of whole school wellbeing should be an aspiration sought by all schools for all pupils and staff.

happy children running in school playgroundSearch the Department for Education (DfE) website for the seminal document ‘Every Child Matters’ (2004) and the response is ‘Every Child Matters is archived’. Indeed, this contradictory and arguably blackly ironic response has been in existence since the election to government of the Conservatives in 2010. The document was published in response to the Victoria Climbié tragedy. Its five principles of ‘be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic wellbeing’, formed a coherent thread underpinning practice across education, social and health services. Six years on and finally, a document on children’s wellbeing has emerged, albeit with a rather more long-winded title, ‘Promoting children and young people’s health and wellbeing: A whole school and college approach’ (Public Health England 2015). The eight principles outlined are school specific, referring to professional development for staff and school leadership, contrasting starkly with the child focused principles of ‘Every Child Matters’.

Is this document DfE policy, underpinning education and other services? No, it is published as ‘a resource’ (p2) by Public Health England (PHE). There is an implicit suggestion that schools are for educational standards and health services for wellbeing, exemplifying a dichotomisation between education and wellbeing and a refusal to acknowledge that wellbeing and educational success are intricately and bi-directionally related. Almost concurrently, a two day conference in Cambridge on ‘Circle Solutions’ positive psychology and wellbeing in schools, steered by Sue Roffey, was cancelled. Responses to general enquiries as to why tend to elicit a shrug of inevitability, ‘well, it’s the current climate, isn’t it?’

But how can education and well-being within ‘this current climate’ be enmeshed instead of split?

Within the broad term ‘wellbeing’ exists other double-faceted perspectives. Roffey (2016) identifies that wellbeing can be focused on vulnerable children or broadly across school ethos. The need to provide protective factors for children ‘in need’, through poverty or abuse (the remit of the ‘Pupil Premium’), is not disputed. Nevertheless, emotional health and wellbeing arguably should pervade a whole school ethos, providing protective factors for all children. What would these factors be? Developing confidence and autonomy are powerful examples (Roffey 2016). Now, of course, many schools do embed such principles within their school ethos and the ‘whole school and college approach’ of PHE will be welcomed as enhancing their existing practice. However, the concern is that schools which maintain focus on ‘academic achievement’ as a separate entity from wellbeing will not be rushing to adopt the PHE resource thus neglecting the well-being of all pupils.

The focus of wellbeing must not be considered as ‘pupil premium children’ or the rest. Whole school well-being should be based on a model explored back in 2008 by Roffey. She conducted research in Australian schools who were making concerted efforts to improve relationships and develop an imbued sense of wellbeing across stratum. Exploring the impact of social and emotional literacy on whole school well-being, she analysed qualitative data using Bronfenbrenner’s 1979 eco-systemic model, which views the child as central to concentric circles of bi-directional relationships.  Relationships were analysed across school culture (macro-level), policies and practices (exo-level), interpersonal relationships and relational values (meso-level) and the individual’s sense of value (micro-level). Circumventing the whole system, Roffey identifies the influence of local and national socio-political context or as earlier stated, ‘the current climate’. Schools where relational values were embedded across their eco-systems demonstrated high levels of well-being for all participants.

Roffey’s findings from interviews with principals, teachers, school counsellors, students and parents revealed the empowering impact of the interconnected natures of the eco-systemic relationships. Principals identified cultures of professional dialogue which other members of staff reiterated, staff identified belief in respect which students corroborated. One member of staff noted how bullying between year groups defused and empathy amongst the children for each other’s needs increased. At the micro, individual level, protective factors for vulnerable children were inherently provided by the positive relationships enmeshed at all levels of social structures within the schools.

Return to 2016 and Roffey notes the mismatch between public outcry for the adversities children face and contrasting ‘add-on’ paradigms in which schools attempt to address the challenging behaviours. Behaviourist paradigms, assertive discipline or behaviour for learning, medical models, restorative approaches and nurture groups all provide a web of contrasting impacts for children’s resilience, some enhancing whilst others undermine. Yet her 2008 research clearly demonstrated the positive impact on vulnerable children’s emotional wellbeing when a schools’ eco-system fostered supportive relationships, agency, social and emotional literacy (SEL), high expectations and collaborative working. Additionally, the protective factors for vulnerable children at the micro level resonated throughout the whole school eco-system, protecting the resilience of all pupils and staff.

Conversely, Roffey (2008) identifies the destructive impact of the ego-system, coined by Crocker et al (2005). According to Crocker and her colleagues, (cited by Roffey 2008) ego-systems are typified by concerns for personal rights, self-preservation and individual gain, generating emotions such as anger, fear or anxiety. Alternatively, Roffey argues that Bronfenbrenner’s model provides a bi-directional relational empowerment, where practices impact on expectations and ethos and vice versa. Surely, our schools in the ‘current climate’ of 2016 require an eco-systemic model of emotional wellbeing, where protective factors for resilience are ensconced.

During a lecture in 2014 at Edinburgh University, Robin Alexander outlined dichotomies of political narratives, as one government seeks to denigrate all the achievements of the previous one. Thus speaking and listening is ‘distracting teachers from teaching literacy’. Equally, literacy and numeracy are pitted against the humanities despite successive Ofsted reports stating that that most highly achieving schools have a broad and balanced curriculum. Going back to 1967, Alexander refers to the dismissal of the Plowden Report where it was noted that children were ‘happy but not learning’. Roffey’s research demonstrates that emotional wellbeing is not an added extra or distraction but an essential condition for learning and achievement. The PHE resource, therefore needs to be central to educational policy and practice across all level of a school eco-system. It is fundamental to learning, not an ‘either or’ dichotomy.


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