Heather Clapp, until recently a behaviour and attendance adviser in Gloucestershire, presents thoughts and reflections on one authority’s experiences of engaging with the pilot programme for Social, Emotional and Behavioural Skills (SEBS)

‘This is too important to be confined to a pilot and small scale; SEBS is whole school and for everyone. It has to underpin all that we do!’ This is how one deputy head described his experience of engaging with the secondary pilot programme to develop Social, Emotional and Behavioural Skills (SEBS).

The journey of six local authorities and over 50 schools that embarked on the pilot has proved that:

  • there is no definitive model to strengthen this area in schools
  • the journey will have its ups and downs
  • making more explicit links between emotional health and wellbeing and effective learning is of ever more critical importance.

The secondary programme is seeking to build on the experiences of the primary programme for SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) while recognising the difference in the structure and dynamics of secondary schools. The emphasis is on the professional development of staff to develop a whole-school understanding of SEBS that will permeate school life at every level and become integrated into the learning and teaching ethos of all departments.

Clearly this needs to be something fundamental and sustainable. When asked, the staff at one school said that its aims were to:

  • reduce stress and anxiety for staff and students
  • improve learning
  • develop strategies for managing learning
  • build self-regulation
  • improve behaviour and attendance
  • ensure students feel safe and secure
  • increase enjoyment of school for staff as well as students.

Aspirational aims one might say, yet surely no more or less than all schools would hope for. What proved different was the ‘naming’ of ‘something we do already’.

Reasons for taking part

Schools are busy places with myriad priorities. Why would schools engage with a pilot programme that may have seemed initially peripheral to the core task of raising achievement? Especially given that funding to support the programme was going to be limited. Among the lures were:

  • the opportunity to be at the forefront of a national development
  • the possibility that the programme might meet the needs of their pupils, particularly where members of staff were voicing concerns regarding an increasing lack of SEBS
  • links to other developments that were under way already, such as restorative justice, healthy schools, nutrition and learning
  • building on high levels of emotional wellbeing
  • as a prerequisite to an effective learning community
  • an ideal vehicle for behaviour and attendance leaders, who were passionate about the importance of this agenda, to introduce it to all staff, some of whom presented less than positive SEBS in their relationship with pupils!

Engaging schools

This was a pilot programme that evolved along the way, with disappointments as well as high points. It rapidly transpired that for it to succeed there needed to be:

  • an understanding of the principles and philosophy behind SEBS as a whole-school development, even if the pilot concentrated on a small section of the school community
  • explicit acknowledgement by the headteacher that this was an important development (and therefore worthy of being built into the school development plan)
  • effective leadership and management by a well-respected senior leader who was committed not only to the pilot process but also to ‘making things happen’.

This did not necessarily mean that senior leaders had to do all the doing; the recruitment of ‘missionaries’, ‘advocates’ and ‘champions’ at all levels was to prove vital. Nevertheless, it did require the senior leader to maintain momentum on the submitted action plan. If senior leaders were feeling overwhelmed – whether by workload or operational demands – or viewed the pilot as peripheral, then progress faltered and commitment to the process waned.

By contrast, when senior leaders were able to envisage the bigger picture whereby staff and pupils actively engage with the social, emotional and behavioural skills that underpin the learning process, it was possible to make a real difference to learning and people’s ability to manage feelings and behaviours positively. This showed in significant attitude shifts.

Getting started

To start with, each school submitted an action plan. The emphasis in the activities outlined was on ‘winning hearts and minds’ across the school community. Among these were:

  • establishing a SEBS practitioners group as a forum for debate and ideas
  • setting SEBS learning outcomes for all lessons
  • involving pupils and staff in a review of the praise system
  • joint staff and pupil review of the code of conduct and public messages about school ethos
  • a weekly SEBS bulletin linked to the implementation of a radically different behaviour for learning policy
  • SEBS explicitly incorporated into the recruitment process
  • regular ‘drip feed’ Inset using and adapting SEBS resources
  • regular senior learning team and departmental agenda item with minuted feedback
  • emphasis on incorporating SEBS in learning and teaching strategies
  • reviews of the PSCHE and tutorial programmes to include explicit engagement with SEBS and learning
  • involvement of parents through newsletters and invitation onto forums
  • partnership between schools and subject departments and/or year heads to develop and cross-fertilise ideas
  • staff development through coaching together with committed time for reflection and debate.

Schools differed in the extent to which these plans guided their activities. Those schools that viewed these plans as working documents and adapted them accordingly tended to be more successful than those which stuck to them rigidly.

Some schools have now decided to re-launch the programme at the start of the new academic year, not only to include new staff but, even more critically, to ensure that other staff members are aware that they are involved in a long-term process.

Sustaining momentum

The experience of leading the pilot programme within the authority was very much a learning experience. The challenges that can often beset senior leaders in schools are replicated in leadership at local authority level. These include among them, demands of pressure from changing roles and ever-expanding work demands. Nevertheless, there emerged some key developments that can be built upon as the second year progresses and the date of a national roll-out approaches.

Shared understanding

As with schools, it is vital that there is a shared understanding of the terminology at all levels within the authority. Links need to be made to the Every Child Matters agenda and other related developments. In our case, the development of a joined-up approach was impeded by a major restructuring within the local authority. This meant that we had to move forward with small steps. Particularly rewarding was the establishment of strong links between the healthy schools team and behaviour and attendance consultants. Together we set up:

  • in-school support
  • joint Inset sessions
  • a high profile conference.

Raising awareness

Every opportunity was utilised to raise awareness of the pilot programme with those delivering other services. We also tried to model positive SEBS within other training provision. In particular, we worked with the secondary team of consultants and advisers to explore the implications of making more explicit links with SEBS in their work with individual departments and classroom practitioners. We also encouraged them to get hands-on experience of the pilot resources.

It goes without saying that, for most, if not all consultants, the social and emotional aspects of learning were implicit in their outlook and approaches; yet this focus enabled them to make more explicit links between pupil standards, achievement and positive attendance and behaviour.

Regular network meetings of those taking part in the SEBS pilot also played an important role in enabling people to share the barriers and successes they faced; these also proved a challenge to keep going in such a geographically large authority. Certainly consultant support in-house is proving easier to sustain.


Experience confirmed our initial feeling that the development of social, emotional and behavioural skills is too important to be at the periphery of school life. These skills define who we are and how we relate to the world around us. They have a direct impact on our learning, achievement and wellbeing. All opportunities to strengthen and consolidate good practice should be openly embraced and welcomed.

Special moments

Six Year 2 children were leading a circle time session for a mixed group of secondary senior leaders, teachers and primary practitioners, many of whom had never previously worked in a circle. The confidence and presence exhibited by these young people astounded the delegates. One of them commented: ‘So why are we treating our Year 7 as if they know nothing?’

A mixed-ability Year 8 geography class, with a reputation for being troublesome, were sensitively led through a series of trust activities that allowed developing empathy with the plight of women in India struggling to provide water for their families. They were able to share their learning experiences and explicit links with their current lives. The atmosphere was tangible and electric.