Graham Haydon responds to the prominence of wellbeing in the news

Personal wellbeing has always been a central concern of PSHE. Today it has also become a prominent notion in discussion of educational and political policy.

In the QCA’s secondary curriculum review, an important cross-curricular role is given to personal development, which has two central strands: personal wellbeing and economic wellbeing.

Wellbeing made the headlines recently when Unicef reported that the UK ranked lowest in an international comparison of children’s wellbeing in 21 affluent countries. While government ministers were quick to argue that the comparison was based on some out-of-date figures, the findings certainly gave weight to the QCA’s emphasis on the importance of wellbeing.

What is wellbeing?
Can we really make young people’s wellbeing central to our educational thinking? The first step must be to avoid confusion in what we understand by ‘wellbeing’. A closer look at the Unicef report and at the QCA consultation materials shows that what counts as wellbeing is far from obvious. The Unicef report compares data on six dimensions of children’s lives:

  • material wellbeing
  • health and safety
  • educational wellbeing
  • family and peer relationships
  • behaviours and risks
  • subjective wellbeing.

Under each of these dimensions the report has drawn on available data on several aspects of children’s conditions of life. For example, ‘educational wellbeing’ takes in data on achievement in numeracy and literacy at age 15; percentage remaining in education after 15; and percentage aged 15-19 not in education, training or employment. Under ‘behaviours and risks’ data is gathered on the percentage of children falling under 12 different categories, of which being overweight; having been drunk more than twice; having had sex by age 15; and having been involved in fighting in the previous 12 months are just four.

The two dimensions above are typical in that the data used is primarily about factors in children’s lives that can be treated as objective and measurable. Subjective wellbeing – roughly, whether children themselves are happy with their lives – forms just one of the six dimensions, and even there some of the data seems of rather indirect relevance. The overall conclusions of the report, then, turn on a range of assumptions about the ways in which wellbeing is grounded in particular objective factors.

Is wellbeing an extra factor?
What about the QCA document? Under the heading, ‘The importance of personal wellbeing’ it says ‘Personal wellbeing helps young people to embrace change, feel positive about who they are and enjoy healthy, safe, responsible and fulfilled lives…’ Like the notice that says ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’, this tells us that you don’t have to have personal wellbeing to feel positive and have a healthy, safe and fulfilled life, but it helps. In other words, this review treats wellbeing as an extra factor in life that helps you to have a life of self-esteem, health and fulfilment. That is getting it the wrong way round. Without those other factors, you don’t have wellbeing at all. Feeling positive, being healthy and so on are ingredients of wellbeing. So, actually, is economic wellbeing (which roughly corresponds to Unicef’s ‘material wellbeing’): it would be better counted as one factor contributing to personal wellbeing, rather than a distinct category.

Notice that these ingredients of wellbeing (as in the Unicef report) include some that are a matter of subjective experience (feeling positive about yourself) and some that are objective conditions (eg having a safe life – but not surely, one totally devoid of risk?). This mix of subjective and objective factors is one that any understanding of wellbeing has to recognise. Wellbeing is not just a state of feeling good (that can be obtained, short-term, in various ways, including sex, drugs and alcohol!). And it is not just a state of being contented with your lot when that lot may objectively be rather a poor one. On the other hand, it is not just having a life that measures up well against some objective scale, if you still feel miserable and unfulfilled in your life.

Why does wellbeing matter?
Wellbeing, then, is not just one factor that helps support other educational aims. It is ultimately what education is about. That is not a view that reinforces selfishness; one of our educational aims should be to try to see that each individual will put some weight on the wellbeing of others and not just their own. Wellbeing is not a simple thing to achieve, or even to understand.

It is not just curriculum designers and teachers who need to think about wellbeing. If we want our students, when they are reflecting on their life choices, to take their own potential wellbeing and that of others into account, then we need to encourage them to ask for themselves the difficult questions about what the ingredients of wellbeing will be for them and how they will put these ingredients together (as often in cooking, the ingredients have to be carefully handled, not just thrown in together in the hope that something satisfactory will emerge).

How much weight, for instance, are they going to put on short-term feelgood factors as against longer-term aspirations? Here, despite the Unicef measures, we should not forget that for most adults ‘having had sex’ and maybe having been drunk a few times are positive ingredients of a good life. Interestingly, at one point the QCA review document appears to say that personal wellbeing ‘includes sexual relationships, drugs and alcohol’. The drafters of official educational documents are not always the most careful users of English: presumably they meant to say that the programme of study on personal wellbeing includes these topics. This is familiar stuff to PSHE teachers, of course. Less familiar, perhaps, is the idea that students, besides studying these familiar topics, need to do some serious thinking about what will make for wellbeing in their lives. Teachers can offer guidance, but students have to do the thinking for themselves.

The Unicef report is at www.unicef.org/media/media_38299.html
The QCA curriculum review is at www.qca.org.uk/secondarycurriculum
review

For a new discussion of aims that gives pivotal place to personal fulfilment, see John White What Schools Are For and Why (Philosophy of Education Society 2007).

Dr Graham Haydon is senior lecturer in philosophy of education at the Institute of Education University of London.

First published in Learning for Life, April 2007

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