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Jubilee Centre Associate, James O’Shaughnessy, leads trial to monitor pupils’ happiness 13th February 2013 Jubilee Centre

Originally published in TES magazine on 11 January 2013 by Richard Vaughan

Trial aims to monitor pupils’ happiness and boost well-being

Thousands of teenage pupils are to be given detailed questionnaires to analyse their levels of depression and anxiety in a bid to boost young people’s well-being.

A four-year trial will be introduced in a number of schools next term in a bid to provide clear evidence on the link between pupils’ well-being and better behaviour and attainment.

Pupils will study a new personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum that will range from help with managing emotions to discussion of the messages on body image and weight sent out by the media.

Data on exam results, attendance and behaviour records will be collected from participating schools, as well as a follow-up depression and anxiety test at the end of each academic year.

The project is being steered by James O’Shaughnessy, David Cameron’s former aide and director of policy at No 10, who was one of the chief proponents of the government’s happiness index, which was published in the summer with the aim of gauging how happy we are as a nation.

Since leaving Downing Street, Mr O’Shaughnessy has turned his attention to schools and, with the help of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and non-profit organisation How to Thrive, hopes to improve pupils’ decision making and boost their well-being through the pilot.

According to Mr O’Shaughnessy, the project has its roots in the Penn Resiliency Program, 18 lessons developed by the University of Pennsylvania in the US aimed at teaching 11- to 13-year-olds how to overcome challenges and setbacks.

The practice of trying to measure the well-being and emotional resilience of pupils was based in “real science”, he said. “There have already been a number of research projects that look into the link between mental health and performance, but this will be the most significant programme of its kind,” Mr O’Shaughnessy said. “Even if you are a traditionalist it is worth worrying about what is going on inside your students’ heads.”

The project will begin this September in 15 randomly selected schools and the LSE will analyse all the findings taken from each of the schools. In total, the Developing Healthy Minds in Teenagers Project will encompass 30 secondary schools, monitoring the impact on pupils between Years 7 and 10.

Similar schemes in the US and Australia have been successful in reducing anxiety and depression among students, according to researchers involved in the project, including Professor Richard Layard, an economist who was the government’s happiness tsar under former prime minister Tony Blair.

Amy Challen, a researcher at the LSE, said that pupils would sit 80- to 90-question tests in order to measure their depression and anxiety scores. “We will compare the groups and their results and see if the programme has been successful in reducing anxiety among students and improving attainment,” Ms Challen said. “It will then be up to schools to decide whether they would like to continue to buy in the curriculum.”

Critics have questioned the worth of attempting to measure pupils’ depression and anxiety levels. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, said there was little value for pupils in sitting such tests and even less in trying to evaluate the results.

“All it will encourage is navel-gazing, which is exactly what education is designed to counteract,” Ms Fox said. “By giving students the language of depression and anxiety they are guaranteed to say they are anxious and depressed, which will lead to a further range of interventions to improve their well-being.”

In two minds

The Developing Healthy Minds in Teenagers Project has been given £687,000 by the Education Endowment Foundation and was signed off by education secretary Michael Gove.

The first cohort of teachers will be trained to teach the new PSHE curriculum this June by charity How to Thrive.

Emma Judge, founder of the charity, said there was often a tension in schools between focusing on pupils’ well-being or concentrating on literacy and numeracy, when the two were “interlinked”.

“We want to break down this paradigm of schools focusing on either-or,” Ms Judge said. “If you want to give kids the best start in life in you need to give them this stuff.”

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