If pupils feel safe, secure and, above all, happy at school, they are less likely to play truant and the atmosphere is more likely to be conducive to learning.

Play time at Mowbray First School in Choppington, Northumberland, is not a free for all. The Mowbray Mates are on duty in their orange tabards. They’re on the look out for lonely children who might need help to join in a game – or who might want a seat on the listening bench (where they can talk about their problems). There’s no quarter for the school bully here.The Mowbray Mates are eight to nine year olds drawn from Year 4 (the school’s final year) and each is carefully selected. ‘We don’t make it easy,’ says Headteacher Joan Riley. ‘It’s quite a responsible position and they have to show they are ready for it.’

Selection starts with a talk in assembly about what the role involves. Interested pupils get an application pack with a form to fill in about why they want to do it – and why they think they would be good. They need a referee to sign it. ‘It’s like applying for a job,’ says Riley. Then they are invited for interview (four at a time) with Riley and a school governor. ‘We ask them for their suggestions about how to improve play time and how to make it safer and happier. The emphasis is on their being a good example around the school all the time – and their work being to a high standard.’ The appointments are reviewed every half term.

The system was introduced as part of the school’s positive behaviour programme. ‘We don’t have a major problem with bullying, but to say it doesn’t happen would be to bury your head in the sand,’ explains Riley. She is pleased with the results – and the children’s comments speak for themselves.The words ‘kind’, ‘help’, ‘happy’ and ‘safe’ come up frequently. ‘They cheered me up when I didn’t have anyone to play with,’ says one girl. ‘They keep school happy and safe,’ says another boy.

The project is far from unique. At Mowbray it falls under the National Healthy School Standard (NHSS) banner, which includes work on emotional health and well-being for pupils and teachers. Across Northumberland’s healthy schools (those implementing the NHSS programme) there’s a range of work going on to foster happy environments that maximise children’s chances of learning. Apart from ‘buddy’ systems such as the Mowbray Mates, there is ‘circle time’ (where children can talk about their feelings or how to manage anger) and school councils, where children have a say in how the school is run. Then there is the school that is running yoga sessions – and another that plays calm music during breaks. In each case, the work is part of the personal, social and health education and citizenship curriculum.

Nor is Northumberland unique. The London Borough of Merton’s NHSS schools have a similar range of projects in place to support pupils’ emotional health and well-being – as do schools within other local authorities. Southampton calls it ’emotional literacy’ – it is written into the LA’s strategy and therefore subject to formal inspection. The results are positive. For example, an anger management project has resulted in a significant reduction in the Borough’s school exclusions.

Margaret Sewell, Northumberland’s Healthy Schools coordinator, explains: ‘The work we do on emotional health and wellbeing is all pertinent to how children are going to learn. Extra classes before children take their SATs are all very well, but if children are not healthy enough to take them – or not in a healthy learning environment – it’s not going to make much difference.’

The research evidence (mostly from the US) backs her up. In 2002, the DfES commissioned Southampton University’s Health Education Unit to review the literature and look at the work of five local authorities in this area. Overall, researchers found that schools developing programmes to foster the emotional health and well being of pupils and staff were getting the same results, namely: greater educational and work success, improvements in behaviour and learning, greater social cohesion and mental health improvements.

Anecdotal evidence from the five LAs studied showed similar benefits – including better behaviour, more confident staff and better pupil involvement. (Weare, K., Gray, G. What Works in Developing Children’s Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? (2003).

Vanessa Cooper, PHSE and Citizenship Development Officer at the National Children’s Bureau, says these kinds of programmes affect the ethos of a school. ‘That’s very nebulous. But it does change the way that staff think about each other – and how they treat each other. It links to behaviour in the schools and to the level of exclusions. For a long time, it has been seen as rather ‘touchy-feely’ and out there on the fringes. So the fact that the DfES has given it some recognition is very significant. It’s coming into the mainstream.’ As with any move-ment coming into the mainstream from different sources, there are quibbles over terminology.

The Southampton University research identified several terms: ’emotional health and wellbeing’, ’emotional literacy’, ’emotional and social competence’ and ’emotional intelligence’. The difference in language derives in part from differences in approach. The DfES take is on cutting truancy and reducing exclusions. The Healthy Schools’ angle is based on social inclusion – raising the achievement of hard-to-reach groups. The educational psychologists focus on literacy and numeracy standards. Ruth Heatherley, one of the HDA’s national advisers on the NHSS, agrees the terminology is confusing. ‘But the idea is the same – it’s to work with children to help them manage their feelings and become more aware.’

While the language and approach may differ slightly, the programmes  emerging share some common themes. They all involve the whole school – staff, pupils and parents, as well as the other professionals attached to schools – and aim to cater for all pupils (as well as those with particular needs). Whatever programme is chosen, it’s important to get it right, adds James Park, director of Antidote, an organisation which campaigns for emotional literacy. ‘Schools need a good deal of support,’ he says. ‘Circle time [where children are encouraged to speak about their feelings and respect other’s emotions] can be a wonderful way for young people to learn. It can also be a way of naming and shaming and persecuting individuals. It all depends on the skills teachers are able to bring.’

Family links nurturing programme

A number of voluntary sector initiatives promote emotional literacy, including the Family Links Nurturing Programme. This has been run in three hundred UK primary schools- reaching 50,000 pupils . It was set up in 1992 by former Health Visitor Annette Mountford. Teachers are trained to deliver a structured, 10-week course to promote children’s emotional health.

‘It fits in beautifully with the citizenship and PHSE curriculum,’ she says ‘The programme becomes the basis for the whole school’s behavioural programme.’ Once the teachers are trained, they introduce weekly activities such as circle time, with empathy, respect and taking responsibility for individual choices all figuring large.

Parental involvement is also crucial. ‘All parents are invited to join a parents’ group – so it’s not just those who are struggling and end up getting labelled lousy parents. They provide a support system and, for my money, they really reinvent the good old village communities, by providing the kind of respectful groups where people can be honest.’

Describing it as ‘good preventive work’, Mountford adds: ‘everybody needs to have good emotional health. This is not just for those who are struggling, it’s for those who are doing well too.’

www.antidote.org.uk

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