School of thought: how being still could transform education

'Soft skills' is a patronising term for unorthodox lessons that will transform education, says Sir Anthony Seldon

In an unusual move at a conference, Sir Anthony Seldon asks those in the auditorium to close their eyes and reflect.

But it is not at all unusual for the former headteacher and co-founder of social movement Action for Happiness (whose patron is the Dalai Lama); Seldon is a passionate believer in the power of stillness and wellbeing to transform education.

“You can enormously boost the performance of your school in every way,” Seldon told attendees of ‘What Works Wellbeing’, a one-day convening of teachers and educators backed by Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). “[You can] turn out much more moral, more grounded, more physically and psychologically healthy young people.”

Seldon is proof of this theory. As headmaster of Wellington College, an independent fee-paying school in the UK, he saw it shoot up the school league table from 256th place to 21st during his decade at the helm.

Wellbeing is critical to tackling two modern-day trends, according to Seldon. Through activities that develop resilience, character, happiness and mindfulness, wellbeing is a way to tackle the rise of mental illness. It can also equip young people with what he says are “patronisingly called the soft skills” – such as creativity, teamwork, politeness and leadership – that are so vital to future employability.

Quite a lot of teachers become disillusioned when they recognise there is little trust in their individuality.

Here, he tells Vision about the power of stillness and why bad headteachers must go.

Why haven’t more school headteachers adopted wellbeing?

It’s lacking in schools because headteachers are reluctant to change; they are fearful about something. But they must change. It’s hard to generalise if children are more unhappy now than in previous generations – we’re picking up more incidents of unhappiness, but it may be that we’re just surveying people more. But certainly there are more reported incidents of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm.

If school heads don’t change, they will turn out children who are messed up, who will not have developed their inner qualities and who won’t have learnt about themselves. If those head teachers can’t leave their schools in a civilised and kind state that spreads happiness and warmth and abolishes fear, then they must go. There are far too many bad heads.

Is wellbeing symptomatic of a wider change in education over the last decade?

I think there’s been a complete revolution. Quite a lot of teachers become disillusioned when they recognise there is little trust in their individuality. It’s hard to be an individual teacher. When I first started teaching in 1983, I was very individual – I could more or less decide what I wanted to teach and how – but you can’t do that now. Teachers are coming to the barricades now, fed up with the traditional model of indoctrination and filling kids with facts and then expecting them to churn them out.

What assessment would you make of the event in Dubai?

I think its great to have had the event in Dubai and to have had the high level buy-in from Dubai’s KHDA. It would be very good to see other countries, in conjunction with their education authorities, organising conferences like this and speaking from the stage and showing they are interested in wellbeing. That’s very unusual.

Should university entrance assessments be abolished in recognising the diverse skills that schools should be teaching?

Not everyone can be an architect or a doctor and not everyone can qualify to read English or engineering at university, so we do need exams to test this. But young people need to have varied skills and if all these subjects are well taught they’ll have educated people in a round way, rather than a narrow way. We need exams, but we need exams plus all the things I’m talking about.

You’ve written that we need to “think less and connect more”. What do you mean by that?

We need to reflect more. We spend too much time in our brains and thinking doesn’t make you still, it just makes you agitated and busy. We need to spend more time being still and learning to let go of our turning minds, to discover ourselves. When we learn to be still we learn to reflect, to become thoughtful and to be more kind. We learn to act smarter and in a more reflective way and actually to act in a much higher impact way.