If I asked you, “what is the ONE thing you want for your children?”, your unequivocal answer would be “happiness”. Indeed, that is the number one response from parents across the world.
If I asked you a follow-up, “what do schools teach?”, you would mull it over before answering “maths”, “English”, “subjects” or maybe “exams”. “Happiness” wouldn’t be in your top 50 responses.
In the same way that Bono announces that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not a rebel song, this is not an anti-government article. But I do want to stimulate some big thoughts…
There is no doubt “testing” and “exam grades” are crucial pillars of the education system. But there’s also no doubt exam results are not the only measure of “success”. The school system needs to be producing awesome young people who shine with enthusiasm, confidence, zest, humility, courage, gratitude, happiness, resilience, respect and who are able to lead flourishing lives. In short, we need amazing citizens.
While most schools talk a good talk (staff would say they believe in nurturing the “whole child”), the reality is children are funnelled into an exam factory which often impedes the qualities above. For too many children, learning has become a chore. Rising rates of burnout among young people (and teachers) suggest the system needs a re-think. The stats are alarming. A recent international survey put English children 14th out of 15 countries in terms of happiness (our children rating less happy than those of Ethiopia and Algeria) and rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased 70 per cent in the past 25 years.
Step forward what I call “character education”. It is not a radical solution requiring a complete re-think. It is a tweaking and rearranging of priorities so education can give “customers” what they want – happy, bright children with a love of learning, playing an active part in flourishing communities.
Virtues which make up great character can be learned and taught. Character education is about building virtues and positive characteristics into school culture. At its purest level, it’s about putting happiness, confidence, well-being, gratitude and strengths on par with traditional subjects. Imagine a timetable where “double happiness” was given equal status as “double maths”? An education system which puts “character education” centrally, with the curriculum built around it? A school where the staff really “get it” and who have bought into the benefits of putting happiness first? What? Putting “happiness” above “maths”? You’d need to be a bit of a maverick, right?
Well, good news, the revolution has started, and it’s started in Sussex. Silverdale Primary in St Leonards to be precise. It began as a leap of faith and has turned into a full-blown well-being revolution.
I turned up 18 months ago to deliver an INSET day for its teachers. There was a shiny young lady, Liz, who was “acting head”. I delivered my workshop “The Art of Being Brilliant” and drove back to Derby with a grin on my chops. They’d really got it.
Not long after Liz contacted me to say she was no longer “acting”. She was “proper”, and did I fancy coming back to the seaside to deliver workshops for the kids…?
We’re 12 months down the line. If you visit Silverdale, you’ll find children delivering happiness and well-being across their school and community. Yes, you read it right. The CHILDREN are delivering it. They are part of a bigger regional challenge, “Hastings Thrives”, which aims to transform the town from the 13th most deprived in the country into one
of the happiest, most aspirational and flourishing places to live in the UK.
Here’s a flavour of what the children have achieved to date… umpteen random acts of kindness on a daily basis, introduced the themes at a parents’ evening, they’ve delivered happiness workshops in other schools across the town, they’ve created a viral video which has got locals dancing, they’ve written and recorded a song “Hastings Seaside Celebration”, they are designing an entire interactive website due to go live this summer and, drum roll please, they have recruited all the primaries in town to take part in a “Sky Parade” along the prom and onto their brand-spanking new pier (June 10). There’s much more, but you get the picture – a happiness domino effect – one head teacher passes it to one staff team, who spread it to one year group, one school, another school, several schools, a whole town – how far can the happiness ripple spread?
Of course, the naysayers will be tutting. Shouldn’t these kids be sitting at their desks learning algebra and history? Relax. They are. And because they feel so great, the learning feels a whole lot easier.
When they open their history books the children of Silverdale will find out all about Hastings. 1066 was a big year. “Hastings Thrives” aims to make 2016 even bigger.
Thank you to Liz, the team and the children of Silverdale Primary. You make me grin.
Andy Cope is a teacher, author, happiness researcher and learning junkie. He works with businesses and schools to help them flourish. He especially likes working with schools and communities who “get it”, where the project takes on a life of its own.
Andy Cope, a “happiness expert” explains in an exclusive article how he is bringing 21 local schools together for a unique project to boost positivity and life chances