I am currently working with two local authorities in Wales and I’m struck by how many job descriptions include ‘well-being’ in the title. This is a response to the “Well-being and Future Generations Act” that is steering the public sector. I wonder how this focus on well-being might alter the way the public sector works.
Definitions of well-being always include feeling good about ourselves, having high self-esteem, caring about others. It includes flourishing and having meaningful and fulfilling relationships. Sadly I don’t have much faith that under the current neoliberal regimes much can change despite the commitment and hard work of public sector employees. In this blog I reflect on this important concept and how nurturing of well-being and the connected relationships that go with it has to start in schools.
I have worked most of my adult life in education and as a teacher educator for over 20 years understand the passion young adults bring to their teacher training. I continue to work with teachers and every day my sympathy for those who just can’t stay in the profession grows. People don’t enter teaching if they don’t care about care about children’s well being, but they soon find that in our current system this is hard to promote. A glance at the statistics tells the story. Nearly a third of teachers who joined the profession in 2010 had left teaching within 5 years. This year, 2018, our schools have 5,366 fewer teachers than last year, whilst we have 136,544 more pupils. There is a crisis in teacher recruitment as well as retention; 73% of school leaders reported difficulty in recruiting teachers.
This is a very worrying trend. At a conference this weekend the teachers, teacher educators and teacher advisors who attended were clear about the problem. The neoliberal agenda with its managerial values of accountability and performativity and its the stifling regime of assessment and monitoring dominates everything and is causing teachers to leave the profession. Teachers’ lives are dominated by a race to cover the curriculum, tick the boxes and get the children through the tests. Children’s lives are dominated by competition and striving for attainment targets. No-one is enjoying it!
The fall-out includes mental health problems that affect about 1 in 10 children and young peopleand is rising. Depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often a direct response to what is happening in young people’s lives, including the testing regime in schools.
Looking at the wider picture
One of the purposes of education has been to prepare young people for work and the consensus amongst neoliberals is that this is best achieved through qualifications. Yet we are preparing children for a world where the nature of work has changed, we are in the middle of a great restructuring of the world of work as technology is changing the jobs that are available, the conditions in which we work, the places we work and the distribution of income. The gig economy (a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) has grown as many professional jobs in accounting, journalism, the law etc have diminished. And new patterns of wealth and inequality have arisen. Today the wages of 64% of the British population are too low to live on. A far greater proportion of benefits go to those in work than out of work. The welfare state is effectively subsidizing employers who fail to pay a living wage.
We know that it is only the top 20% who have jobs that pay well. How these jobs are acquired is the subject of research by DiTomaso in “The American Non-Dilemma” (2013). She found that the key to accessing jobs, higher education, internships and housing was not qualifications, but relationships and connections – exactly what those in the low-paid economy lack.
Unfortunately in the UK a market approach to education has separated young people. Better off and poor children attend very different schools and as a result have very different connections. We know that attending a school where the socio-economic markers indicate poverty is the surest indicator of failure later in life. Lower attainment, fewer relationships, fewer connections – the very things that are necessary to find good jobs. And Wales has more than its fair share of these types of communities.
In a review of the literature Cottam (2018) found that in the UK jobs are found through connections and relationships, and secured through soft skills – in fact the two are closely connected. Social networks are key to job success. Of course, hard skills – the formal qualifications are important too, but there is a growing literature that shows that without soft skills formal qualifications have little value. Meanwhile schools are forced to focus on the hard skills at the expensive of soft skills with a corresponding impact on well-being.
And things can only get worse. Research from the Oxford Martin School, an inter-disciplinary body at Oxford University, argues that half of all jobs will go in the next 20 years (Frey and Osbourne, 2013) as artificial intelligence expands; 47% of us are in the ‘high risk’ category. Some work will disappear and new possibilities and new types of work will emerge, but whatever happens, rapid change is on the agenda. Currently in Wales more than 1 in 8, 16-24 year olds are out of work.
We know that people who get jobs have soft skills. Employers frequently complain that young people in particular lack these soft skills: confidence, team-work, patience, motivation, the ability to communicate with a wide range of people and to learn. The focus of our current education system is to prepare children and young people for “an active role in the economy and society” (Welsh Government, 2017) but this doesn’t include soft skills, it is examination success that is prioritised. Despite teachers’ best intentions, the focus on performativity and accountability in schools means there is little time to develop the soft skills our young people so desperately need.
And the elephant in the room is what is happening to our climate and environment. We have to learn to live sustainably; we have to find ways of responding to climate change, pollution, resource depletion, species elimination – these are the biggest challenges our young people will face as they grow up and we should be facing – as Martin Luther King said, “the fierce urgency of now”. It will affect everything we do: how we grow food, build houses, supply energy, provide transport, support health and social care etc. Education has to be at the heart of learning to live in harmony with the planet so the lives of future generation have a chance to survive. And this needs communities who can work together as the economy continues to flatline and poverty rates are rising.
We need educational and community spaces where children and young people and adults get the opportunity to express their opinions and have the opportunity to reflect on what living a good life might look like for them and their communities. We need a citizenry that is able to think about and shape the kind of society they want to live in. We face huge societal problems now that need attention. Such thinking needs to be done in relationships; relationships make a difference to people.
If we can focus on building relationships and the soft skills that come with them we might stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty and all that that brings. New approaches are out there as Hilary Cottam (2018) has documented. She invites us to try different ways of working. To create a new narrative that seeks to transform our public sector, to come together to create a vision for a good life and invest in building our capabilities and our relationships. That means experimenting with new ideas and developing our critical and creative thinking to find new ways of learning.
And if you are in education it means standing up and saying ‘No!’ we will no longer be part of a system that has widened inequality, that has privileged the top 20% and only pays lip-service to the soft skills that underpin well-being. We need to reach out to our communities and build strong relationships to change lives.