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Well-being and Values Education: Where do we go from here?

11 Oct 2017 | Laura Hyde

Year 6 Lesson

In response to the alarming increase in the number of young people who experience mental health problems, educationalists, psychologists, sociologists and the spiritually inclined have rallied wholeheartedly to offer a number of remedies. Many of these initiatives are serving well in responding to the effects of mental ill-health.

As a school leader for twenty-three years I found myself in the privileged position of having the opportunity to create the circumstances in which young people could truly flourish, thereby addressing some of these crucial issues. Although there were a good number of failed attempts during my time, I would like to share what I ultimately found to work well in transforming the level of happiness in the lives of those who were in our care.

A vision of human potential

It has always seemed to me that the efforts of any educational leadership are rendered weak unless there is a strong vision in the heart and mind of the Head or Principal.

In the absence of vision a leader is left rudderless and the direction of travel is sadly dictated by whatever fashionable idea happens to be blowing in the ever-changing winds of passing ideologies. These ideologies are often politically driven or dreamt up by those who have little contact with the real business of nurturing human potential.

Only too often, heads adopt new initiatives without really scrutinising how they will affect the overall direction of their schools or indeed giving time to examine carefully whether the ideas actually have any real merit in them from the point of view of human welfare.

This is where a leader needs to have an educational 'rudder': do these ideas or initiatives really serve the vision for human development and potential?  In the absence of a clear vision, we become subject to the fear of standing out from the crowd, or of not 'keeping up with the times'. I have sat through large meetings where new ideologies have been promulgated as 'the thing to do now'. Often ideas are accepted as though they were incontrovertible axioms - and the audience nods to these axioms in a mental sleep as though they were eternal 'truths'. 

Historically, our great schools have always been inspired by a large vision of human potential. A human being does have extraordinary potential and is capable of unfathomable achievement, physically, intellectually, creatively and spiritually. Furthermore, it has always been understood that our development depends almost entirely upon the quality of influences to which we have been subjected in our formative years.

That is why our great schools' curricula were governed by the profound principle that in order for the best to flow from a human being it should be nourished with the best of all that has been thought, spoken and created throughout the generations.

Moral and spiritual education: filling a vacuum

We would probably all agree that the great qualities of a human being - such as empathy, compassion, forgiveness, courage, generosity, honesty, loyalty, endeavour, power of devotion - are to be highly prized. Values education has sought to encourage the development of such qualities and much admirable work has been done in many schools.

Values cloud 2

However, if I were to have any misgivings on any of this it would be to argue that often such education lacks two vital elements: the first is content or substance; the second is that it fails to establish deep roots within the individual which would have the power to transform behaviour - especially when tested in challenging circumstances.

Content and practice

During my twenty years of headship and three years as Director of Education for a group of schools I have developed a philosophical approach to values education which has proved to be very effective in enabling these great qualities to flourish in pupils as they grow through childhood, adolescence and into responsible adulthood.

The course is entitled 'philosophy': it is not academic philosophy but is based in the meaning of the word in that it seeks to inspire a love of wisdom and its value in the practice of daily life. Each of the virtues or qualities is taken in turn and a few lessons are given to exploring the practical meaning of that particular quality by reference to a selection of texts from a variety of global wisdom traditions, past and present.

These texts are studied carefully together in conversation in order to draw out the meaning from as many perspectives as possible. Thereafter, the pupils are asked to practise what they have understood in the lesson and share findings with each other the following week. The effect of this process is to allow a good period of assimilation through enquiry which may then be consolidated and validated in practice.

Friendship is always a huge subject of concern for youngsters. They desperately want good friendships and yearn for the comfort of special friends. The trials and tribulations which young people experience with regard to making, keeping and breaking friendships consume a very large portion of their attention, let alone their emotional energy.

Equally, we well know that enormous damage to relationships is done through careless and harmful speech whether it is conveyed through social media or face to face. Childhood and adolescence is fertile ground for the use and abuse of speech in this respect. To assist with this, one of the topics discussed in Year 7 (age 11-12) is how to ensure that speech does not harm.

There is a quotation from Eknath Easwaran, (1910-1999), a Hindi writer and philosopher, which I have found has a lasting impact on young people well into their adulthood. Former pupils tell me that of all the texts they have studied, this quotation has remained very much alive in their daily experience. They report that it has a transformative effect on the quality of their friendships:

Image Of Sufi Quote On Speech

Over time, it is very apparent that pupils' conduct and happiness are enhanced through this experience. Furthermore, values or virtues take root in the individual and become natural to their way of life. Indeed, I have had a number of former pupils report on how this philosophical content had served to give them welcome clarity in the exercise of their personal judgement.

Young people have found that the combination of practical wisdom and a variety of approaches to meditative practice throughout their education has given them significant strength in meeting challenging circumstances. Many have reported being able to maintain well-being throughout university whilst observing sadly that a number of their contemporaries were facing a range of mental health problems. Very often these pupils would find themselves providing comfort and strength for their peers.

In summary, a philosophical approach to values education combined with an ability to access inner peace and live 'mindfully', serve beautifully to enhance the discovery of what it really means to live well and to live happily.


Supporting Heads to develop a whole-school ethos

I believe it is important for heads and leadership teams to have access to appropriate coaching and mentoring to support them in creating a school ethos which has the power to transform and enhance the lives of their young people. The needs of each school are different. In working closely with a head, it is possible to discover his or her particular vision and make it real.

We can all speak the right words, but there is a big difference between aspiration and authentic transformation; the challenges may be great but solutions can be found.


Sun Through Tree

Laura Hyde (Cert Ed, MEd) is a Consultant in Educational Development. She offers coaching or mentoring to heads and their leadership teams to help them discover the means to deliver a really effective school ethos.


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