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Education: the challenge of being young and well

24 May 2024

Young people are struggling to be happy. They could learn from someone older, says Dennis Richards


Well-being is considered an important area for an “anxious generation”, but PSHCE has been described as a “Polyfilla” subject

Well-being is considered an important area for an “anxious generation”, but PSHCE has been described as a “Polyfilla” subject

IT CAME as something of a surprise to discover that 20 March 2024 was the world’s 13th United Nations International Day of Happiness. It was difficult to comprehend when the misery in Gaza and in Ukraine continues. It was also freezing cold and raining here.

Nevertheless, the publication of the World Happiness Report on the same day was widely featured in the national press, and raised serious issues. Informed by data from the Gallup polling organisation (140 countries were surveyed), the report was published by the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford.

The authors inevitably had to face down some cynicism about the notion of happiness itself, coupled with a weariness at the very idea that there is now a day of the year for almost everything. Indeed, Americans mark 16 January as National Nothing Day. In the UK, on 19 November, we are even asked to mark the Have a Bad Day Day.

As for happiness in the UK, the survey produced very mixed results. Had the report considered only young people between the ages of 15 to 24, the UK would have ranked 32nd — instead of its 20th ranking overall. The publishers wisely shifted the vocabulary in the title of the report, from happiness to well-being.


WELL-BEING has been in common parlance in schools now for several years. It is arguable that the whole debate in relation to well-being in schools emerged on to the national scene as long ago as 2006, although the notion of happiness had already come to the attention of educational thinkers with the publication, in 2005, of the book Happiness, by the economist Lord Layard, a Labour peer and policy adviser.

As Layard was something of a controversial figure, given his overt political affiliation, it needed a charismatic education leader to bring it to the attention of schools nationally. Already well known to the nation as the acclaimed author of several political biographies, Sir Anthony Seldon was the driving force who set the debate in motion, when, as the newly appointed head of Wellington College, he introduced “happiness classes” in 2006. The initial reaction was a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, as the national media descended on the school.

It is no surprise, however, that a book by Seldon outlining his thinking would follow at some stage. Beyond Happiness was published in 2015. Easy to read, he is honest, as always, about his own journey through various trials, temptations, and tribulations. The clue lies in the title. Seldon clearly wants to move beyond the initial focus of the Wellington programme. The thesis of the 2015 volume is not difficult, and is deeply influenced by Christian thinkers, among others.

Had C. S. Lewis not beaten him to it, Seldon’s book could easily have been entitled Surprised by Joy. It is an intensely personal document, in terms of his frankness about his pursuit of status — attracted, in his mid-thirties, by glamour and material possessions (several veteran sports cars and the rest). As for what came next, few would be able to write: “At the time of my re-awakening to my inner life, I was writing a book about Gordon Brown.” His conclusion? If material possessions rarely grant us happiness, neither does great power.


THE dreadful recent violence afflicting some of our schools, and the very evident negative impact of the explosion of social media, have led, according to Jonathan Haidt in a recent book, to The Anxious Generation. A focus on well-being education is more important than it has ever been.

Ian Morris is the current head of the Department of Wellbeing at Wellington College, and has been so since the initiative began in 2006. In conversation, he is warm in his description of Seldon’s innovative thinking. “I am standing on the foundations he laid,” he says. Adding that Seldon was a master of delegation, he comments that he was given “autonomy and freedom” to develop the well-being agenda.

As the national media interest faded, together they were able to frame a curriculum based on “the science of human flourishing”: in effect, a Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education (PSHCE) reconstruction. The syllabus focuses on personal health, sleep, regular exercise, and diet; positive relationships, depending on emotional resilience, empathy, and trust; and sustainable living, along with constructive engagement in society. Philosophy and psychology are both harnessed as tools in the pursuit of well-being. The curriculum delivers 60 hours of well-being lessons over four years.

The belief that adolescents are now tired of — even bored by — the standard PSHCE programme is a controversial one. “A finger-wagging exercise in disaster avoidance” is how Mr Morris describes it on the school website, “with an assumption that teenagers are up to no good”.

It is true that, in many schools, PSHCE can almost be described as “Polyfilla” studies: taught by a teacher who is a specialist in another subject area, and who has a few lessons spare for filling awkward gaps on the timetable. It is hardly a strategy conducive to anyone’s well-being, including that of the unfortunate teacher.


IN 2022, Seldon wrote The Path of Peace (Feature, 11 November 2022). As with Beyond Happiness, the clue is in the title. His 1000km walk along the Western Front Way was a response to the shock of retirement, and the loss of his late wife.

The initial pages make painful reading. The inner peace achieved through writing Beyond Happiness and the 18-year story of the Wellbeing course at Wellington College seem to have evaporated. But, at least, he seemed to enjoy telling us that the planned biography of Boris Johnson, to be published the following year, would not be the answer to his search for inner peace.

The lasting legacy of the Western Front Way which Seldon helped to create, and which his book has helped to publicise and finance, once complete, will be to bring fulfilment, health benefits, and much else to the future generations who walk it. The happiness and well-being story has come full circle.


Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate, in North Yorkshire.

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