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Children and young people behave very differently at home than the way they do at school. The recent half term holidays meant we were all very busy; between us we visited over 25 homes and grandparents’ homes, looked into fridges, were shown contents of wardrobes, took photos of favourite digital equipment, attended cricket matches and swimming lessons, and Amanda even went to a birthday party. We were all completely exhausted by the end of the week, but agreed that the insight we gained into children’s lives, their friendships, their activities and hobbies, was well worth it.

The children and young people we meet in our research are mostly happy and carefree. But there is of alarm expressed about the fact that children in the UK and the US are at the bottom of the league table of developed countries in the Unicef report on children’s wellbeing (2007). Australia was not part of the report, but has similar concerns about the wellbeing of its children. This week I went to a seminar at Cambridge that looked at children and positive psychology run by Professor Felicia Huppert, the Director of the Wellbeing Institute at the University of Cambridge. Charlie Scudamore, deputy head of Geelong Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia was speaking. Geelong is one of the oldest fee paying schools in Australia, founded in 1855. The school has recently opened its $16 million Handbury Centre for Wellbeing (named after Helen Handbury, philanthropist and sister of Rupert Murdoch), and a major ethos of the centre is what Scudamore describes as ‘positive education’, a whole school approach to teaching and learning.

A concern for the general wellbeing of its pupils alerted Geelong Grammar to the notion of positive psychology after a visit in 2006 from Martin Seligman, considered to be the father of the modern positive psychology movement in the US, and whose work has focused on optimism and happiness, and learned helplessness. Martin Seligman and his colleagues have developed the Penn Resiliency Programme, which has been running in schools in the US for some years. The curriculum teaches cognitive-behavioural and social problem-solving skills, and pupils learn to challenge negative beliefs by considering alternative interpretations. The programme also teaches a variety of strategies that can be used for solving problems and coping with difficult situations and emotions. Pupils learn techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making, social problem-solving, and relaxation.

Charlie Scudamore prefers the description ‘positive education’ rather than ‘positive psychology’ because virtually every member of staff, from receptionists, to the bursar, to teachers has undergone the 9 day training course. Implicitly, the whole school is aware of and is consciously concerned to promote children’s wellbeing. Scudamore uses terms such ‘the notion of flourishing’ and ‘an enabling institution’; he aims to increase positive emotion in students by encouraging them to ‘engage their character strengths for personal and community goals’. The school wants to engage students to ‘have a meaningful life’, this means giving positive messages to even the least able child.

Measuring the outcomes of such a scheme is difficult. The Penn Resiliency Programme has been introduced on a trial basis into 22 schools in the UK in Hertfordshire, South Tyneside and Manchester. This is its first comprehensive UK trial and the largest scale trial to date in any country. 90 workshop facilitators delivered PRP to a cohort of 2,000 students in the academic year 2007/8 and the impact on student wellbeing will be evaluated over the course of three years. The evaluation is being carried out by LSE and supported by DCSF.
An interim report has been issued and can be viewed at http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/projectinformation.cfm?projectid=15690&resultspage=1

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