Measuring wellbeing should not be feared but embraced 

Concerns about accountability are holding back what could be a powerful counter-measure to league tables and toxic work cultures, writes Adrian Bethune

Concerns about accountability are holding back what could be a powerful counter-measure to league tables and toxic work cultures, writes Adrian Bethune

31 May 2022, 5:00

The pandemic’s impact on the mental health of communities has sharpened our sector’s focus on wellbeing, and it seems to have brought about a significant opinion shift among parents, too. But while there is a growing desire for wellbeing to be measured, we still have valid questions to answer about what that might mean for schools and their staff.

In a recent YouGov survey commissioned by the Youth Sport Trust and the Well Schools movement, 62 per cent of parents listed wellbeing as a serious consideration when choosing a secondary school for their child. That was the top answer, beating location (61 per cent) and exam results (58 per cent). In addition, 76 per cent said they want schools to measure wellbeing.

Those are significant results. Yet less than half of schools currently have tools in place to deliver on that demand. It’s obvious there remain reservations about measuring wellbeing, but there are ways to overcome those fears and to see it as the solution.

Measure what you treasure

The best (and shortest) reason to measure wellbeing comes from the author Can We Be Happier?, Professor Richard Layard, who set up the London School of Economics’ research centre for wellbeing: “If you treasure it, measure it.” Measuring wellbeing underlines its importance – and as a result, the wellbeing of pupils and teachers gains greater attention.

It also gives parents the information they need and want about their child’s happiness at school. And if there are children struggling and schools don’t know who they are, measuring wellbeing can help identify those who need extra support.

But doing so doesn’t have to mean extra workload. When I first started measuring wellbeing in school, I found it really stressful. I’m not a statistician, nor a spreadsheet expert, and making sense of all the data was a nightmare. Now, there are affordable, fit-for-purpose tools that do the work for you, removing stress from the process and providing valuable information for leadership teams and boards of trustees alike.

That already takes it well beyond ‘data for data’s sake’, but the key to unlocking its potential is to listen to what the results tell you and act on them. Our pupils were least happy with the school’s facilities, so we invested in our playground. They now feel listened to and have better equipment – a wellbeing double-win. We have also created a staff wellbeing team who take ownership of the actions that come from the survey, as well as focus groups.

A league of your own

We’re all aware of the downside of league tables, and some may fear adding wellbeing to the list. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The #BeeWell project, backed by the University of Manchester, is using the same metrics across all schools in the region, and wants to see the project rolled out across the country. That’s what happens in the Netherlands and South Australia already, and it’s a helpful counterbalance to accountability for exam results.  

If you ask children, staff and parents the same questions, you get comparable data that you can learn from together. So I would expect schools to publish the data as we do, because transparency about such an important aspect of school life matters. But it’s not a competition. Unlike exam results, wellbeing isn’t a zero-sum game. One school’s gain is not another’s loss!

In any case, schools are already held accountable by Ofsted for staff and pupil wellbeing. So why not have the best data available for inspectors? And why let their report be the only information your community receives on the matter, once every few years?

Many schools do amazing things to enhance the quality of their staff’s and pupils’ lives. Their achievements ought to be celebrated. Others have toxic cultures that should be challenged. So, while it’s natural to have reservations about new technologies, we can’t let old ways hold us back.

In fact, measuring wellbeing may be the thing that finally cracks our perennial workload and retention problems.

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