If I asked any parent what they want for their children, three words would come to mind automatically, without any thought or effort. We all want our children to be happy and healthy.
So how are we doing?
Recently the States of Guernsey published the Guernsey Young People’s Survey 2019 results for our primary and secondary schools and I am just going to focus on the results for our secondary students. There is some good news and there are lots of positives – physical activity and good eating habits have increased, and substance misuse has decreased. The hard work of the teachers and support agencies which contributed to these successes are to be celebrated. However there are some serious problems that many will not be aware of and which haven’t received any media attention. What I took away from the results was that:
- 56% of our secondary students are not happy;
- 62% of our secondary students don’t think their schools care about their happiness;
- 57% of our secondary students are not glad of who they are (just stop a moment and re-read that one more time to let it register fully);
- 65% of girls are worrying a lot about exams and tests; and
- 55% of girls are worrying a lot about the way they look.
What on earth are we doing? If we want our children to be happy and healthy why are we failing them so badly?
The Child at the Centre
I know that for teachers their guiding principle is putting the child at the centre of their decisions. The profession is a vocation and they are acutely aware of the huge responsibility they have in educating the young people who come through their classrooms. Without question the teachers are doing their best in a challenging environment where the system is stacked against them. If we acknowledge that the situation is poor now, then it is likely to deteriorate further if the direction of travel is a move towards an “exam factory” education system more heavily focused on content.
At the same time the significant reduction in green space at Les Beaucamps High School will have an impact on recreational opportunities when we want to encourage young people to be active and realise all the benefits that flow from exercise.
These larger schools may also reduce connections and quality of pastoral care for students.
If the school day is going to be lengthened with earlier start times and more formal tuition built into the schedule this would reduce the time available for the young people to bond and make social connections whilst at school.
Personal Social Health and Economic education, including well-beng, may be crowded out of the formal teaching time and only covered in lunch breaks within tutor groups.
Finally, with greater travelling distances active travel opportunities will be reduced as students resort to buses.
All of these developments are potentially concerning and it is hard to see how they help move the metrics in the right direction. A joyous and purposeful curriculum seems a distant memory.
The Flawed Formula for Happiness
However there is a more fundamental problem that underpins this malaise within our schools and indeed our wider communities as we see growing number of incidents of mental disorders affecting our young people. Our society’s formula for success works something like this. We are told from an early age that if you work hard you will be successful and so you will be happy.
Unfortunately, this model is flawed. We never reach the happy destination as we constantly move the goalposts over the cognitive horizon. It leaves us striving for success and happiness which always stays tantalizingly out of reach and means we forget to be happy in the moment which is, after all, all we actually have.
This flawed and prevalent formula for happiness rules every decision and moment of our lives.
So as a child our parents tell us we have to work hard to get good test results so that we can go to the right school. So we do that. Then at the “right” school we are told that we have to work hard to secure good GCSE results. So we work hard and get the grades we need to move to the next stage of our education, say A Levels. At this point we are telling ourselves we have to work hard so that we can attend the University of our choice and study the for the degree we want.
Once we have finished our formal education we have to secure a respectable job and salary to be successful and happy. Once we have done that, it’s the promotion, the pay rise and the next job. And so it continues. Before we realise it, we are counting down the years or months until retirement because we are now saying I will be happy when I retire and I can enjoy life when I don’t have to work. Sound familiar?
The Real Source of Success
The irony though is not that our brains don’t work like this. The irony is in fact that the happiness formula works completely in reverse. If you are happy you are more likely to be more creative, more successful and more energetic.
Dopamine which floods into our system when you’re feeling positive has two functions. Not only does it make us happier, it turns on all of the learning centres in our brains. Students that feel joy, relaxed and safe in school will automatically learn more than if they were stressed and anxious.
Can you imagine what it would be like if our children are happy and enjoying school and want to be there? What do you think would be the impact on all educational outcomes if that was their mental state? In our drive to improve standards we have missed the bigger picture. We are forgetting that physical and mental well-being drive learning.
The evidence in Guernsey’s Young People’s Survey has made it crystal clear that we cannot stick with the status quo and we need new ideas. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t just apply for Guernsey but young people in the UK as well.
Changing the World
Good ideas can and do change the world. We have seen this countless times as new ideas come to the fore. It is called progress.
Radical good ideas will typically go through three stages. First – they will be ignored. Then they will be fiercely opposed. And then they become accepted truths and adopted without question.
To illustrate the three stages, Martin Luther King paid the ultimate price for leading the civil rights movement in the United States. With his mountain top speech the day before his assassination he foreshadowed his own death but knew that the movement would be successful and civil rights would become accepted even if he would not be there to see it.
In his most famous speech, when he was angry, Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a nightmare”. Instead he had a dream and so do we. We want to correct the formula for happiness and we want to start addressing this in our schools. We are working on a course that will help to embed happiness and well-being at the core of our young people’s curriculum. We want to equip them with life skills which will serve them well for the whole of their lives and enable them to be happy and glad of who they are.
We believe in a future where the purpose of education is not to prepare a young person simply for employment, but for a life well lived. If you agree with these ideas and want to make this a reality, come and join us.