Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Kathryn Ecclestone welcomes the first public challenge to the Social Emotional and Affective Learning Strategies for Schools (SEALS)

The renaming of the Department for Education and Skills as the Department for Children, Families and Schools removes 'education' as a social and political aspiration for the first time in 60 years. This enables the government to tune into popular concerns about unhappiness and well-being and, through 'Every Child Matters', to change the key purpose of educational institutions.

There is an unchallenged assumption that we face an unprecedented epidemic of mental health problems is now a key feature of social and welfare policy in the UK: the chief executive of the charity NCH was quoted in the Daily Mail on 20 July 2007, saying "the lack of emotional well-being amongst our children and young people is undermining the foundation of any social policy to combat social exclusion, deprivation or lack of social mobility. We urge Gordon Brown and his new Cabinet to commit to tackling this hidden and fast-growing problem". The Conservative Party has commissioned a review of children’s unhappiness as has the National Children’s Society.

A political shift from education to welfare institutionalises popular concerns about emotional vulnerability and unhappiness. Emotional interventions attract rising levels of funding. The Social, Emotional and Affective Learning Strategy for Schools cost £10m in 2007-8, with a further £31.2 million ear-marked over the next three years. Anti-bullying schemes cost £1.7 million a year, while peer mentoring currently receives £1.75 million. Another £60 million was added in July 2007 for schools to improve emotional well-being, phased over the next three years to be £30 million in 2010-11.

Unsurprisingly, a huge and lucrative huge industry is flourishing around emotional well-being and emotional literacy. Over 70 organisations and growing numbers of private consultants, including university academics, have created a deluge of interventions, guidance, training courses and text books around slippery and interchangeable concepts such as 'self esteem', 'emotional and mental well-being', 'emotional literacy' and 'emotional intelligence'.

Such initiatives include ‘circle time’, ‘nurture groups’, anti-bullying and mentoring schemes, drama workshops to deal with transitions and bullying, activities to develop ‘learning power’, ‘learning to learn’ and ‘self-esteem’, ‘philosophy for children’ classes, ‘emotional audits’ and ‘whole school strategies for emotional literacy’. There are over 30 different instruments to assess emotional well-being. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority requires schools to assess young children’s emotional competence in a Foundation Stage Profile while the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is drawing up formal guidelines for primary schools to diagnose emotional well-being.

Until now, there has been no public challenge to all this. A recent report from the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being is the first serious criticism of this policy. It questions the way in which children’s emotions are being formalised, regimented and trained. It points to the poor theoretical and empirical base of evidence for notions such as self-esteem, emotional intelligence and emotional literacy and challenges the government to justify carrying out a ‘national psychological experiment on the nation’s children’. The report challenges the way that policy is founded on and reproduces images of emotionally ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ people who need ‘support’.

Although the report is right that emotional interventions are founded on dubious evidence and incoherent concepts, it is precisely the lack of evidence and incoherence of underlying ideas that enables government to relate to public ideas about emotional vulnerability.

Carol Craig (2007) The potential dangers of a systematic, explicit approach to teaching social and emotional skills (Glasgow, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being) http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/docs/SEALsummary.pdf