Are schools ready to look after children’s ‘wellbeing’?

Parents must ensure the department’s new wellbeing programmes are implemented

Children return to school next week. Most will feel excited about going back, others will dread it. Either way, children and teachers will face old and new challenges such as dealing with bullies effectively and ensuring homeless children living in hotel rooms have space to do homework.

Children are a lot more stressed than they used to be. Published this year, Trends in Health Behaviours, Health Outcomes and Contextual Factors Between 1998 and 2014: Findings from the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study showed there was a statistically significant increase in the proportion of children who reported feeling low every week or more in the past six months (23 per cent in 1998; 28 per cent in 2014).

There was also a statistically significant increase in the proportion of children who reported feeling pressured by school work (33 per cent in 1998; 43 per cent in 2014). Acquiring an education is not much fun for many children and the poorer they are the less fun it is.

The good news is that from this September, the Department of Education and Skills is introducing a new area of teaching and learning called “wellbeing”. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has produced Junior Cycle wellbeing guidelines to support schools with its implementation. The overall approach is not just to learn about wellbeing, which includes awareness, knowledge and skills, but also learning for wellbeing, which is a process of well-becoming.


This is quite a radical idea from the department. The whole school community has to agree a definition of wellbeing that takes the social determinants of health into account and does not see individuals as solely responsible for their own health. For example, healthy-eating classes are pointless when children have little or no access to healthy food.

Four aspects Wellbeing has four aspects: school culture and the social environment; the curriculum, including

social, personal and health education (SPHE), relationships and sexuality education (RSE), physical education (PE) and civic, social and political education (CPSE); policy and planning, including bullying and healthy eating policies; and relationships, including student/teacher and teacher/parent relationships. Student wellbeing is both a principle of the new junior cycle and a curricular area. Its purpose is to develop a more coherent approach to what is already happening in schools. At present, some of the above subjects are often seen as a waste of time by pupils, teachers and parents. Passing exams and getting “the points” for third level are all-important.

Schools are now expected to timetable, at a minimum, 300 hours of wellbeing, across the three years of Junior Cycle, from September 2017 to May/June 2018, rising to 400 hours by 2020. Politicians have expressed concerns about the time involved because, in their opinion, subjects such as foreign languages and science are more important. Did these politicians actually read the NCCA guidelines? The guidelines stress: “It is vital that those who seek to support high academic standards and those who seek to promote mental, emotional and social health realise that they are on the same side.” Very few extra hours are involved. Schools already timetable 275 hours for Junior Cycle students on wellbeing-related subjects, including 70 hours for SPHE/RSE, 135 hours for PE, and 70 hours for CSPE. An extra hour a week will be allocated to wellbeing over the three years. New areas of learning could include digital media literacy and philosophy.

Challenging The implementation of the

wellbeing programme will be very challenging for schools. It is doubtful that teachers are capable of developing a wellbeing vision that takes the social determinants into account. The department's Life-skills Survey 2015 found that a majority of schools find teaching about substance misuse, relationships and sexuality, and mental health (83 per cent of post-primary schools) challenging or very challenging. Teachers are also uneasy about aspects of the RSE programme because of Catholic Church views on sexuality. Schools give much less emphasis to "contraception" and "sexually transmitted infections" than they do to "taking responsibility" and "respect". More than half of schools use external facilitators, such as Aids West and Accord, to teach the "uncomfortable" parts of the RSE programme. How will they cope with concepts such as well-becoming? Schools are allowed to opt out of the wellbeing courses outlined in the guidelines. These courses "are fully up to date" so why allow opt outs? Parents will need to ensure schools are implementing the wellbeing programmes described in the guidelines. Nothing less will do.