Life skills: The missing link to wellbeing

Life skills: The missing link to wellbeing



By Dr Leila Khouja Walker, Chief Product Officer

A socio-emotional crisis made worse

Even before COVID-19, wellbeing among UK children fell sharply from age 12, and was 21% lower at 16 than at age 8, overall, and as high as 26% lower among girls. Loss of agency among teenagers was rising and the UK came bottom out of the 37 OECD countries on pupil life satisfaction.

On top of this, for months now the Coronavirus pandemic has been wreaking further damage on wellbeing for many students. In August 2020 the OECD warned about the potential disruption caused by the shift to blended learning – this disruption has now become the reality for much of the UK.

The decade long call for more mental health provision has been answered

Mental health funding in England has received a £1.6 billion boost compared with three years ago, according to NHS England. Mental health charities continue to ask for additional funding via schools, as genuine concern grows on the long term impact of COVID-19 and missed schooling for our younger generations.

Emma Thomas, CEO of the children's wellbeing and mental health charity YoungMinds, has called for “a ring-fenced Resilience Fund, which would ensure schools could commission the mental health and wellbeing support that young people need. This could include commissioning in-school counselling services, working with local charities, bringing extra staff to provide pastoral support, commissioning digital services or prioritising staff wellbeing.”

Wellbeing and mental health

This is all well and good, however, are we at risk of labelling too many students with mental health issues, when in fact boosting wellbeing by developing life skills would be the answer for most? Many of the socio-emotional issues facing young people are symptomatic of the lack of life skills teaching in many of our schools and colleges. Today we are faced with a pandemic, but – make no mistake – tomorrow will bring new challenges.

In the words of Shonogh Pilgrim, Head Teacher at Ansford Academy, where a passion for equipping students with the skills to make a success of their lives is central to the school ethos, “Kids have become more aware that they may not be well, and sometimes things that are actually quite normal have become medical issues, particularly around anxiety.”

For students who are not suffering from a clinical mental health condition, a balanced curriculum that includes key social and emotional life skills, which are proven to boost wellbeing, is what is needed.

Clear evidence that developing life skills improves wellbeing

In 2020, the Centre for Education & Youth released findings from a two year meta research study that uncovered robust evidence of causal links between the development of life skills and emotional wellbeing.

However, these very same life skills – which are also frequently reported as lacking in the workforce, for example by Big Education’s Rethinking Assessment – continue to be overlooked in our approach to educating young people today, and tellingly, assessing them.

A life skills paradigm shift is needed

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has devised assessments that measure problem solving, creativity, and socio-emotional learning, rather than focusing on subject disciplines. The methodology behind these assessments could be used in UK schools to measure and assign value to life skills.

But we need to go further. A paradigm shift across research, policy and practice to differentiate between mental health and general wellbeing is required. Rather than using the same dedicated and expensive resources to ‘treat’ young people who either have genuine mental health issues or simply lower levels of wellbeing, we must recognise and manage these two groups quite separately.

Mental health provision is of course required to support those who are not able to manage their wellbeing by developing socio-emotional life skills, even when given access to the right teaching and tools. However, the majority who are reacting to unexpected events, such as a pandemic, stressful situations like lockdowns, or predictable life challenges such as exams and interviews, within the normal range of responses, need to be equipped with those life skills in school.

Both curriculum time spent and the assessment of life skills development, must be central to school provision. If they are not, we risk repeating the mistakes of the last few decades: trying to devise a PSHE curriculum to support life skills and wellbeing, within a system working against that by rewarding subject discipline content over life skills taught in non-assessed areas of the curriculum.

Persona Education offers free access to its Persona Life Skills e-learning platform for secondary schools and colleges interested in developing their pupils’ essential social & emotional life skills, to boost student wellbeing and employability. 


About the author: Dr Leila Walker has been working in the education sector for 25 years. An ex-teacher and pastoral deputy head, she is now a respected edtech and pedagogy thought leader, leading development of the personality insights life skills e-learning app Persona Life Skills, at the Bristol based edtech company Persona Education Ltd.

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