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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Bethune

Happiness is the meaning of... school

Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle said that 'Happiness is the meaning of life, the whole aim and end of human existence'. British philosopher David Hulme wrote in the Nineteenth century that, 'The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness.' Today, the Dalai Lama says, 'The purpose of our lives is to be happy'. Throughout our human history, we have searched for the meaning of life and often come to the conclusion that leading a life full of pleasure and purpose is the point. So, if happiness is the meaning of life, then surely that must be the meaning of schools too?

Parents and teachers think schools should prioritise happiness

A recent Teacher Tapp poll of almost 8000 teachers asked them to rate the top three positive outcomes students should leave school with. The top results were:

  • Self-confidence (59%)

  • Respect for others (58%)

  • Life skills (52%)

  • A love of learning (38%)

Broadly speaking, these are the things that contribute to children's happiness and wellbeing at school. Interestingly, a 'rich knowledge of subjects' (a big, current government and Ofsted focus) was only voted by 23% of respondents.

These results are echoed by parents too. A recent You Gov poll commisioned by the Youth Sport Trust found that:

  • The majority of parents (64%) believe that wellbeing is more important than academic attainment.

  • 76% of parents believe schools should measure young people's wellbeing in order to improve it.

  • Wellbeing is pretty much the number 1 factor for parents when chooisng a school.

Wellbeing in childhood matters more for future happiness than grades

In 2017, I went to an event and heard world-renowned economist and wellbeing expert, Prof. Richard Layard speak on the topic of wellbeing and education. He stated that the sole purpose of education should be to develop capacities that will increase:

* The happiness of the pupil (as child & adult)

* The happiness of the rest of society

Now, being an economist, this isn't just some fanciful whimsy but a belief based on hard, empirical evidence. Layard and colleagues have carried out extensive longitudinal research to see what the strongest predictor of adult happiness is during childhood. It turns out that a child's emotional wellbeing is the strongest predictor of adult life satisfaction. In fact, it is more important than all the qualifications a person ever obtains.

Schools can help children to be happier

Most importantly, this research found that primary and secondary teachers have a major impact on children's wellbeing. They found that teachers affect children's happiness nearly as much as their academic performance. So, what Layard and certainly us all at Teachappy believe, is that we need to shift the focus in schools. We need to focus more of our energies on explicity teaching children the things teachers and parents know they need and which evidence shows you can teach (like life skills, self-confidence, relationship skills, mindfulness, self-regulation, optimism, physical activity, etc). This would truly be a 'knowledge-rich' education.

And let's not forget that there is increasing evidence that a happy child is a learning child and that whole school apporaches to wellbeing can and do work. This isn't an either/or situation, where the choice is a focus on the academic or wellbeing. These two aims mutually support one another. When children feel good about themselves and their lives they tend to learn better, and when children are doing better in school they tend to feel better about their lives. What we're talking about is addressing the imbalance. This is the reason why Teachappy and powerful movements like Well Schools exist. A greater focus on wellbeing is needed to help children feel better about their lives, do better in school and to ultimately help them lead happier, more fulfilling lives as adults. Is there a worthier or more important goal than that?

This is a happy school

A headteacher got in touch with me this week. I'd delivered a day's training at his school about two years ago and they had an Ofsted inspection recently. He very kindly said my training continued to have a positive impact on what they did and so wanted to share their report with me. He told me the inspector had said to him 'Kindness runs through this school like a stick of rock'. He said that comment alone, and the ones below, were all that mattered to him and his team - they were far better than any grade. Have a read below and tell me if you woudn't be overjoyed to work at or send your child to this school. The challenge for us is to help make all schools feel like this.

Adrian Bethune is a part-time teacher and author of Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom and A Little Guide To Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care.

Watch the Teachappy animation Can School Make You Happier?

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