The responsibility of SEAL and the development of emotional intelligence ultimately lies with the school, argues headteacher Neil Berry, and can have a real impact on school improvement

As a headteacher I have had experience of working in two schools that worked very hard to successfully change the culture that had previously existed. Although both my experiences predated the introduction of the SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) initiative of 2005, what we did to effect the culture changes in both schools is mirrored in much of the literature, research and advice currently available. We all know that it is preferable with any educational initiative to start from where you are (not from where you think you are) and it is certainly true that in my two schools the social and emotional aspects of learning were two crucial areas for us to focus on. To overcome the barriers to learning by using well thought out strategies is professionally satisfying as well as both complex and challenging. The goal of making students more effective learners makes it all worthwhile.

The use of the term ‘emotional intelligence’, (Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, 1996), posits that emotional and social skills are more important than conventional intelligence, for a wide range of successes, educational and personal.

It is a pity, though, that some people see the label as either jargon or a cliché and fail to explore the quality of the argument and the positive evidence to support the impressive outcomes. I was recently depressed to see a Channel 4 News website where SEAL was the subject of some blogging by teachers. One comment about SEAL was: ‘Is it more of teachers having to do what parents should have done before they start school? That is, making them socially able to go into a place of learning to actually learn.’ (Pass the buck 1) Another contribution read: ‘Let the teachers teach. Social services are available for social work.’ (Pass the buck 2) Both the above comments illustrate something fundamental about the way that some teachers think. The students in our school are the only students that we have. What alternative is there other than to teach them more effectively? It may well be the case that some students arrive at school ill equipped to learn but that does not mean that we do not use our skills to remedy this. After all, as public servants paid out of tax-payers’ money, this is what we should be doing and I would argue what we are paid for. It is not easy at times. Yes, it is frustrating and yes, we all wish that some parents could have done more. However, this client group is the one we have to work with. If schools employ the repertoire of advice on SEAL implementation and embrace it fulsomely, I would be amazed if things did not change for the better. Indeed, my experience and other empirical evidence demonstrate that it does work.

Staff training
Staff will need to be trained in social and emotional skills in order to be professionally effective – it is obvious that staff will need these skills in order to help students to develop them. Most teachers will possess a range of these skills, either innately or through acquisition, as teaching is a job where it is impossible to be effective without sensitivity, empathy and the capacity to make good classroom relationships.

Successfully managed, a SEAL approach will have a beneficial effect on learning as socially and emotionally well-adjusted students should benefit by enhanced powers of concentration, which in turn should lead to less disruptive behaviour with other students. Building better, more sincere relationships predicated on trust is another achievable outcome. However, the biggest gain that I have noticed is the effect that SEAL activities have had with very angry and frustrated students who are able to develop alternative ways of operating with their peers and teachers after a series of mentoring sessions, either with their peers or counsellors as appropriate. This reduction in anger and frustration often leads to enhancement of self-esteem and therefore reduces the need for them to ‘kick off’ with other students.

A positive learning environment

Another positive aspect of operating within a SEAL environment is that evidence has shown that improvement in staff wellbeing and stress reduction are two important features of its success. Reduction in stress for both teachers and students has obvious beneficial educational results. If students are less tense around assessment times this may lead to increased performance and attainment. If the tension between students, ie the desire to compete for teacher attention, is reduced and the students begin to work together the benefits from collaborative and cooperative working begin to kick in with increased empathy developing thus leading to a positive working and learning environment. None of this is rocket science; famous phrases such as ‘do as you would be done by’, ‘you only get back what you give’ spring to mind. The bandwagon of optimism and energy released by this approach can be an impressive engine for school improvement. SEAL is useful for all schools, whether inner city, suburban or rural. I believe that any school can benefit by engaging students more effectively in their learning and improve their performance either academically or in terms of Every Child Matters outcomes. My 15 years’ experience as head of a rural secondary modern in Buckinghamshire and an inner-city comprehensive in Newham has convinced me that this is the case. Apart from issues of engagement in learning and improved behaviour outcomes, which this approach can be highly successful in developing, attendances should improve because students behave better and want to learn (this happened in both my schools).

Smoothing the path of transition

In order to celebrate diversity and social inclusion, an emotionally healthy school is essential and if the SEAL work done at Key Stages 1 and 2 is effective (remember SEAL started as a primary initiative) and linked up with what is done in secondary this is the ideal scenario. SEAL will provide an ideal opportunity for primary and secondary colleagues to work together, so that the transition from primary to secondary education is less traumatic for the students as a common framework for emotional literacy will underpin the move from one sector to another. At the other end of the system, employers often say that they greatly value social and emotional skills in the workplace. Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, stated in 2004: ‘A degree alone is not enough. Employers are looking for more than just technical skills and knowledge of a degree discipline. They particularly value skills such as communication, team working and problem solving. Job applicants who can demonstrate that they have developed these skills will have a real advantage.’ The Every Child Matters agenda is an area where the SEAL approach can be very effective to help achieve the five outcomes:

1. Be healthy. If SEAL has been strategically and effectively introduced, the results should be that students are happier with themselves, less angry and less stressed. In turn this should lead to a reduction in risky, impulsive behaviour. In terms of the Healthy Schools programme this is also important as an emotionally safe environment will enable the skills acquired to be put into place.

2. Enjoy and achieve. By learning to cooperate and enhance their ability and skill set students should be able to enjoy school more, understand the level that they are working at and then be able to set their own goals and targets for improvement.

3. Make a positive contribution. Active citizenship and the confidence to work collaboratively in the way Digby Jones mentions above should be the result of the work undertaken.

4. Stay safe. By helping to reduce aggression and concentrating on relationships, students should be able to develop ways to cope with conflict, violence, aggression and bullying.

5. Achieve economic wellbeing. A well-educated, highly motivated student who has achieved their potential in education should be an asset to the workplace.

Impact on behaviour

The SEAL curriculum encourages the development of skills that will impact favourably on behaviour and lead to effective learning. In particular, it identifies self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills as the key areas for development. This approach has especial benefits for PSHE and citizenship lessons, as well as whole-school ethos. A huge range of SEAL resources is available on the DCSF Standards Site.

Evidence of impact

In short, the proof of an initiative is in the outcomes. Although I would argue that we have been embracing a SEAL-type approach for seven years at Brampton Manor School, where I am headteacher, we have only consciously referred to emotional literacy over about the last five years. During this time we have used a variety of strategies such as appreciative inquiry, non-violent communication, peer mentoring, circle time etc in a conscious attempt to promotion emotional literacy and the student voice. Our Ofsted inspection of February 2007 stated the following: ‘The key feature of Brampton Manor is the sense of security that both students and staff feel. At the time of this inspection Year 7 students had been in the school for one term; many confidently reported how safe they felt and how much they enjoyed school. The continued excellent attendance is an indicator of how successfully the school has created a place where students want to be. Staff feel that they work in a school where they are encouraged to take risks that will benefit the students. They are passionate about ensuring that all the students get the best deal possible.’ Later it read: ‘Brampton Manor produces confident, articulate young people who want to continue learning; the vast majority go on to further education or training. This is a school that the local community can rightly feel proud of.’ This school was in an Ofsted category of serious weakness in 1999.

I am convinced that SEAL is good for teachers, schools and students because of the effect that it had at my school. Like most teachers I have a healthy scepticism when it comes to new initiatives or an outside expert telling me what to do in the classroom when he/she has not been a practicing teacher him/herself for many years. But if the children tell me the approach is working, the parents do the same, along with the teachers and Ofsted too, then it works. Let the facts speak for themselves.