In two respects the focus of education has shifted in the 2000s.

by Joan Sallis

One is the movement towards making designated schools into centres of whole community concern for children from babyhood, with all the agencies which serve the family collaborating to achieve the best possible environment for the health, happiness and learning of the individual. The other is the unmistakable spontaneous movement of schools themselves into a whole-child approach to learning – body, mind and spirit all needing to be nurtured.

Both initiatives are about wholeness and need governors’ understanding. Today I am concerned with the second, the growth of interest in the social and emotional aspects of learning.

When school wasn’t fun

Was it ever? you may ask. It’s all relative. But really old people like me remember the tut-tutting which went on among even older people in the ’60s, when creativity had a bit of a ball in our schools.

Content was a lot more important than form, imagination more exciting than the three Rs. Mistakes weren’t corrected and parents and grandparents worried a great deal about what would happen to children going out into the world clutching a lot of brilliantly coloured pictures and some good tunes, but no spelling, no tables, no long division, no dates – all exaggerated, of course, but not imagined. Reaction was perhaps inevitable.

And so it was in the 1980s when a Conservative government began a programme of educational reform of a dramatic kind to bring rigour into our schools through a national curriculum setting standards to test against, regular Ofsted inspections and published league tables comparing schools. Parental choice would do the rest, it was thought.


Again reaction to extremes was not long appearing, but it was not a top-down affair this time. Many educationists disliked the competitive element becoming so dominant.

Schools with social, financial, or staffing difficulties feared labelling of a kind which would only increase their problems and the social divisions they represented. Many teachers found the straight-jacket of the national curriculum inhibiting and it was not unknown for young children to show signs of stress about all the testing and the constant feeling of jumping through hoops.

But as teachers, missing the stimulus of a personal influence on the content and style of learning, began to reflect on the many good things there wasn’t time for in the school day, there emerged a view of childhood as an exciting time, a time for finding beauty in unexpected places, for wonder, excitement, experiment, discovery of self, new skills of body, mind and spirit not dreamed of in the SATs.


‘And not by Eastern windows only When morning comes, comes in the light. For in the East the sun comes slow, how slowly, But Westward, look, the land is bright.’

(Arthur Hugh Clough)

Not a geographical parallel, but this particular revolution was like that – marked by light from unexpected directions, not master-minded by politicians, who caught up a bit later. It happened in an unrecorded scattering of schools where teachers came to see that you didn’t necessarily rob the SATs of their acceptable percentages by spending more time on other activities.

Exciting personal experiences were recorded in the odd magazine article, in the talk of teachers at their gatherings. I think it started about five years ago, and in the last two the advice from on high has been catching up with the reality. I stumbled on it by becoming a new governor of a primary school where the children would ask, ‘What are SATs?’ the day after they had had them, where standards in basics seemed to get better the less they were talked about.

Time was spent on more outdoor sports and explorations, the development of healthy eating, appreciation of beauty, creative pursuits and, above all, the development of sensitivity, emotional stability and competence in relationships. A new category was established in the award of Advanced Skills Teacher – that of creativity.
Here are some of the elements in the enhanced school curriculum:

  • Time spent on brain sharpening exercises.
  • More outdoor exercise and exploration of the natural world, appreciation of its beauty and order.
  • More emphasis on creative activity in the classroom.
  • Healthy eating.
  • Developing skills in making and maintaining relationships, empathy, personal confidence, control of anger, formulation of values.

The last is perhaps the most rapidly developing activity and has received increasing attention both from the government and academics on both sides of the Atlantic. Meditation is one of the most courageous but remarkably practical features of this thinking and, believe me, children are good at it and articulate in advertising its benefits. ‘Helps you get out of your own way’, said one small boy.

The governmental interest is admirably represented by a remarkable (and very attractive) pack of materials called SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning), eminently usable with classes and small groups to provide insights and provoke discussion. The DfES will supply it to any school on request.

A most articulate American scholar called Daniel Goleman has written and recorded some eloquent thought on emotional aspects of learning.  I wish he wouldn’t call it emotional literacy, which to me is not very precise and may invite hostile reaction, and I don’t like the term emotional intelligence either. I’d go for emotional health or emotional well-being, the whole agenda being one of health and teachable competence of mind and spirit.

But these are presentational issues and the totality is rich and practical. If you are worried by books like Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood, which makes the world we have created for our children sound very nasty, take heart. This could transform it. And if you, school governors, think ‘I wish something nice would happen in education’, believe me this is it.