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Chris McGovern: Lessons in happiness? Another power grab by the Blob

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“Happiness lessons” are back in the news. According to The Daily Telegraph, ex-Health Minister Lord Rarzi and former Government advisor Lord Layard have produced a report accusing our education system of a “grossly inhumane” failure to care for the wellbeing of children. It was presented at a global health summit in Doha earlier this week.

The Report claims that our country has “a massive problem” with anxiety and depression affecting as many as one in ten youngsters. The solution, it concludes, will only be found by a massive overhaul of our education system in order that “life skills” are placed on a par with reading and writing. This would involve lessons in wellbeing, commonly described as “happiness lessons”, being part of the weekly timetable. They are already part of the curriculum at the independent Wellington College.

A survey last year by The Children’s Society of 50,000 12-year-olds across 39 countries adds to the depressing picture. In terms of subjective wellbeing (how they view their own happiness) English children are near the bottom of the table in 32nd place.

It would be folly, and a dereliction of our duty to the young, to bury our heads in the sand and to ignore a growing body of evidence concerning the stresses and strains of childhood.

The issue, however, is not whether there is a problem. The issue is whether ‘happiness lessons’ are the solution. Currently, schools cannot even ensure that all pupils achieve a mastery of basic literacy and numeracy. How many teachers will be willing, let alone capable, of successfully taking on the role of psychiatrist?

The educational establishment, the Blob, has a vested interest and voracious appetite for expanding its influence and power into all areas of children’s lives. Inevitably, this takes it into territory that traditionally belonged to families, parents and the home. The current debate over whether sex education is appropriate in the primary school shows the extent to which the Blob wishes to trespass on the domain of the family. It has become a jealous surrogate parent. Its method is to over-complicate the simple strands of daily life and to claim suzerainty.

‘Happiness lessons’ are its latest grab for power. This is being presented as something that can be taught, just as foreign languages, geography or physics are taught or, these days, often mis-taught. I wonder if a GCSE in ‘Happiness’ or “Wellbeing’ is just around the corner?

Most of us know that ‘happiness’ is a by-product of doing something else, especially of helping others. Sometimes this emerges through religious faith. It, also, comes from wanting what you have rather than from having what you want. Not least, for both children and adults, it can come via passions such as sport, literature, music, academic study or the arts. And for young children, in particular, beyond everything else, ‘happiness’ means spending time with parents.

As a head teacher the best I could do in terms of ‘promoting’ happiness was to ensure a caring and successful school. A by-product of this was, in general, very happy pupils who would run into school each morning. I was not able to teach ‘happiness’, but merely to provide an environment where it might thrive. Ultimately, nothing was more important to the happiness of my pupils than their relationship with their mums and dads. Where that was fractured or starved of time there was no ‘happiness lesson’ solution.

Nicky Morgan, our ever more gullible Education Secretary, appears to have ‘bought into’ the happiness agenda ‘big time’ on the basis of what she describes as a “moral mission”. Sadly, the introspection and self-absorption that these lessons will bring to children is more likely to increase stress and unhappiness than to diminish it. They are a fake and dangerously seductive substitute for family life. Happiness lessons are a problem masquerading as a solution to the growing trials and tribulations of childhood.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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