Monday 25 September 2017

Happier days ahead for pupils

The 60,000 first-years starting in second-level schools this term are the first to have their wellbeing on the curriculum, writes Katherine Donnelly

First-year students of St Dominic’s College (from left) Jodie Devine, Abbie Corish, Caitlin Tobin, Lucy Brennan, Jody Balfe and Erin Murray. PICTURE: COLIN O’RIORDAN
First-year students of St Dominic’s College (from left) Jodie Devine, Abbie Corish, Caitlin Tobin, Lucy Brennan, Jody Balfe and Erin Murray. PICTURE: COLIN O’RIORDAN
Mary Daly, Principal, St. Dominics College, Ballyfermot.

A new word has entered the Irish education dictionary. Wellbeing may already be part of day-to-day vocabulary, and indeed, enthusiastically espoused by many schools, but, from this month it is officially on the second-level curriculum.

The 60,000 incoming first years have wellbeing written into their timetable for three years of junior cycle, in the same way as traditional subjects such as English and maths.

Wellbeing brings together three familiar areas of learning - physical education (PE), Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), and Civic, Social and Political Education (CPSE), and the fourth pillar is guidance/counselling.

The aim is not merely to repackage this quartet under a fashionable name, but for wellbeing to be greater than the sum of its parts, through a new whole-school approach to being mindful of - and taking care of - the needs of all students.

Wellbeing is moving centre stage in Irish second-level education as part of the wider reform of junior cycle and its sweeping changes to how students are taught, how they learn and how they are assessed.

Some may see wellbeing as a 'touchy-feely' add-on to what is regarded as the primary function of schools - the pursuit of high academic achievement. But, far from pandering to the sensitivities of the so-called 'snowflake' generation, it is a recognition of the challenges faced by adolescents and the difference schools can make in equipping their pupils to deal with what life throws at them and to mature as caring citizens.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern about the mental health of young people in Ireland.

The 2012 My World Survey by UCD, the most comprehensive study of youth mental health in Ireland, representing the views of almost 14,500 12- to 25-year-olds, found that 75pc of mental health issues emerge between the ages of 15 and 25.

The wellbeing programme was devised by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), whose guidelines for schools state that "student wellbeing is present when students realise their abilities, take care of their physical wellbeing, can cope with the normal stresses of life, and have a sense of purpose and belonging to a wider community."

The NCCA is careful to stress that schools need to consider wellbeing less as a state - it is a lifelong journey - and that it does not necessarily mean the absence of stress or negative emotions, rather developing the skills to handle any setbacks

The wellbeing of Irish teenagers, and, through that, future generations of Irish adults, is an end in itself, but it's not the only goal, with research, at home and internationally, showing that wellbeing and learning are inextricably linked.

In 2015, Dr Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) reported that children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school wellbeing have higher levels of academic achievement. Her findings were based on insights from the Growing up in Ireland study.

The international think-tank, the OECD, well-known for its PISA reports on the academic performance of 15-year-olds in reading maths and science, has added student wellbeing to its areas of educational interest.

Earlier this year, its first PISA report on student wellbeing highlighted how teenagers who felt part of a school community and enjoyed good relations with their parents and supportive teachers were more likely to perform better academically and be happier with their lives.

OECD chief of staff Gabriela Ramos says: "There is no secret, you perform better if you feel valued, if you feel well treated, if you are given a hand to succeed!"

The high ambitions for wellbeing in the Irish education system are underpinned by the decision to devote 400 hours class contact time across the three years of junior cycle to wellbeing, whereas 240 hours is apportioned to the core subjects of English, Maths and Irish.

However, incorporating wellbeing, with its elevated status, into the timetable, has meant a cut in hours for non-core subjects, such as languages and history and geography, which has not been without its critics.

But the focus on wellbeing has never been more critical, according to Dr Pádraig Kirk, who heads up Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), a Department of Education and Skills schools' support service.

"We needed to take stock of our education system at lower secondary level, and ensure that there was an appropriate balance between academic endeavour and achievement and the development of necessary life and coping skills. One of the aims of junior cycle reform is to re-strike this balance".

Even with the 400 hours dedicated time, wellbeing is intended to be more than a discrete, stand-alone programme, and is expected to permeate every class. The NCCA says, "everyone within each school shares the responsibility for creating a positive ethos and a climate of respect and care."

Dr Kirk says: "Every teacher in every class has the potential to impact on a student's wellbeing, whether that is through the teaching strategies employed in the classroom, the assessment techniques practised, or simply by the quality of the teacher-student relationship that exists."

So teachers will be challenged to ensure that every pupil feels affirmed in the class and may have to put themselves to the test by asking questions such as "am I connecting with every student?; am I making sure everyone here feels part of the class and is listened to?"

While many teachers may already be exemplars of best practice in this regard, it means a new mindset for the education system as whole, and JCT is providing all second-level teachers with a full day's training on wellbeing.

Dr Kirk says they "will work with whole staffs in schools up and down the country and will help to make sense for them of the new NCCA wellbeing guidelines.

"Our training in the wellbeing area does not adopt a generic approach, it will be anchored in the individual context of each of the schools we work with; that's what makes this training very different".

Schools will have flexibility to devise their own programmes, taking account of their particular context and the needs of their pupils, and may draw on resources provided by the NCCA or by outside agencies or, indeed, developed by the school itself.

Among its advice to schools, the NCCA says that only qualified physical education teachers are in a position to teach the sort of PE programme envisaged and says SPHE teachers should be interested in, and willing to teach that subject.

The NCCA also sees a role for parents to have a voice in helping schools to devise programmes tailored to the needs of their children, as well as the importance of them receiving regular reports about their child's learning about wellbeing.

Irish Independent

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