What can be achieved by SEAL over three years? Educational psychologist Cate Summers takes a look at results in the London Borough of Westminster

When I first heard about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), I was immediately excited by its focus on whole-school and systemic ways of working. This thinking about the ‘whole’ child in the ‘whole’ school environment made so much sense. It was the way I had always wanted to work.

First year

For us, the first year of SEAL involved working in just four schools, which had been carefully selected against six criteria:

  • having a head and governors who were fully supportive of the project
  • having achieved Healthy Schools status
  • being able to commit four days of training for two SEAL lead practitioners (one of whom must be senior management)
  • capacity to benefit from projects and not over-committed to other projects or too much change (eg building works or staff movement)
  • a willingness and commitment to share work from the project with others
  • a minimum of one whole-school Inset day and at least two twilight sessions a term during the first year.

Each school received support, training and time from myself and our lead learning mentor, Chloe Ruthven.

Some of the most interesting and enlightening pieces of consultation work I have ever done as an educational psychologist ensued in the initial discussions with schools. We covered issues such as:

  • the school development plan
  • challenging areas of the school
  • playtimes
  • mid-day meal supervisors
  • learning support assistants
  • emotional health of the whole school and of individuals
  • how to involve parents more.

The level of commitment and understanding in each school meant that the project took off with considerable momentum, energy and good will. We tailor-made each SEAL programme for each school, addressing such difficult issues as:

  • teacher stress and home-work balance
  • cliques and divisions within staff groups
  • parent apathy.

At our first conference, we had a chance to share with other schools in Westminster much of the work, and the changes that had been brought about. A series of inspiring presentations from the schools meant there was a high level of interest from other schools wanting to be involved in the second year.

Second year
The second year involved the same selection criteria. Six schools were selected from the many that were interested. We continued to support the four original schools and offered an ‘open morning’ three times a term to see SEAL in action. Visitors would:

  • see an assembly
  • have a tour of the school
  • be part of a SEAL activity and/or circle time in key stages 1 and 2
  • have an opportunity to discuss planning and implementation of SEAL into a PSHE curriculum
  • experience anything else the school was keen to showcase – such as playtimes, school council, dance workshops, etc.

Our special schools, particularly a severe learning difficulties (SLD) and profound multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) school, took on with massive enthusiasm the chance to rewrite and reorganise the SEAL resources for their students. They felt that, just because children have severe difficulties, it did not mean their social and emotional needs were any less important than those of any other child.

We continued to work with a range of materials and resources for evaluation. These included Antidote’s School Emotional Environment for Learning Survey (SEELS) and NfER’s Emotional Literacy Index. Also, four trainee educational psychologists based their dissertations around different areas of SEAL, such as changes in self-esteem and the emotional vocabulary used by the children in pre- and post-test measures. This area continues to challenge us, as emotional and social skills are notoriously difficult to ‘rate’, and other related areas tend to be reported instead, such as exclusions or incidences of bullying. Our second conference again showcased the diversity in schools’ approach to SEAL. The conference included three short films made by school staff: one about playtimes, another about setting up and running a school council and another from the special school – the most simple yet moving illustration of how these wonderful youngsters can communicate and enjoy learning about emotions if taught appropriately. We also had demonstrations from groups of children who were doing role play, singing and dancing. Their energy, commitment and excitement was contagious.

Third year
We have taken on an additional six schools this year. Working as a team of psychologists (with protected time), we meet regularly and share out the trainings, as well as specific school requests, such as observations of lunchtime, parent workshops or twilight sessions. Visits to neighbouring LEAs and open mornings continue to keep SEAL alive for those schools entering their third year. Here, there is a sense of a changed ethos: direct links between learning and happiness have been established and embedded.

A colleague recently compared looking after SEAL schools to being a parent: some schools are like children who ‘get it’, need little support and just fly; others are like children who need much support and this continues throughout their lives as they move steadily and slowly in the right direction; finally there are schools who do well initially, then suffer setbacks and need our support again.

This article was written shortly before the arrival of Cate’s third child George Harvey on 6 December 2007