Wellbeing research in Australia

Written by: Janet Williamson | Published:
Wellbeing witness: Northern Ireland headteacher Janet Williamson with pupils from Geelong Grammar School in Australia

Schools in Australia are embracing pioneering research on pupil wellbeing. Janet Williamson reports on her trip to witness their approaches first-hand

International influences like the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are having an impact on the testing of pupils, ranking of schools, educational policy and practice.

On the plus side, PISA and the like have helped expose quite significant areas of inequality in terms of pupils’ outcomes.
I identified best practice in Victoria State, Australia, and was funded by a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship Award, in partnership with the Mercers’ Company, to “identify and evaluate measures of pupils’ attainment and progress in post-primary schools”.

Best practice has often demonstrated schools that extend beyond traditional external examination attainment to focus on pupils’ progress and wellbeing as well and there is international research evidence of transference between improved wellbeing and improved academic attainment.

In Australia, longitudinal research involving Melbourne and Deakin Universities collaborating with schools, including Northern Bay College (NBC) and Geelong Grammar School (GGS), are linking wellbeing with retention rates in school and also showing positive correlations with health, wealth and happiness.

At the Institute of Positive Education at GGS, the director, J Robinson, had said: “Focusing on pupil and staff wellbeing is some of the most important work a school community can and should do.”

The Institute of Positive Education is an initiative by GGS aimed at improving pupil wellbeing. The Institute seeks to teach pupils valuable life-skills which can increase their learning capacity. They bring together the science of positive psychology with best practice to strengthen their relationships, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

The work is underpinned by the PERMA model, a wellbeing theory encompassing five key elements that was developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in his 2011 book Flourish.

The team at the Institute of Positive Education is comprised of experienced teachers with strong backgrounds in educational leadership, primary and secondary teaching, as well as qualified psychologists, researchers and professional communication and administration managers.

One example of their research is the correlation between positive mental health in adolescence and healthy pathways into adulthood. The findings suggested that the PERMA domains of wellbeing (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments) provide a good indication of young people’s positive mental health in their teenage years.

Such findings provided preliminary support for the effectiveness of the positive education programme, particularly in year 9. A number of ideas then emerged to inform the curriculum and planning.

The equivalent in Northern Ireland would perhaps be the Personal Development Programmes and the Learning for Life and Work curriculum. At my school, The Royal Belfast Academical Institution, I have appointed a senior teacher to take responsibility to review these schemes, to research and implement PERMA, and to promote all pupils’ wellbeing.

Back in Victoria, a slightly different approach is taken at NBC, where the focus is on five domains of wellbeing that reflect NEST, a research-based national framework that aligns efforts to improve the wellbeing of children.

The five domains are: developing well, engaged in learning and achieving, safe and secure, happy and healthy, and active. These wellbeing domains are consistent with the five recognised pillars of wellbeing identified by Seligman in PERMA.

The NBC makes a commitment called “The Promise” that pupils who actively engage with the NBC will have the opportunity for successful transition into further education or employment. The Promise explicitly shares the social and educational responsibility with the wider community, with the college at the centre.

The school has its own nursery, medical centre, vocational workshops and community workers. The alignment of stakeholders from health to education simplifies referrals and promotes an integrated, coordinated and consistent approach, which provides a model of effective practice to education authorities in the UK.

In both schools, a “wellbeing profiler model”, developed by the universities, measures adolescent wellbeing, underpinned by rigorous science (including biological testing of cortisol saliva and heart rate variability), establishing norms for baseline and benchmarking tracking through school and into adulthood.

There are significant implications from the research outcomes as communities seek to align education with health care and employment, informed by and led by an outcomes framework.

The work being undertaken in GGS and NBC brings together the key stakeholders of the community: external professionals including Save the Children, the universities, employers and politicians.

The professionals finance and undertake the longitudinal research and the teachers interpret and apply it. School development planning and budgets align to the research outcomes and priorities. One example of the report feedback, from a visiting principal to NBC, was: “Nobody talks in depth anymore about the difficulties in the community. Now I hear everyone talking about aspirations and what students can achieve.”

On a personal level, I observed pupils and teachers engaged in the learning, benefiting from the educational opportunities and pupils developing valued life-skills.

Professor John Hattie, director of the Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and author of Visible Learning, recognises and acknowledges that achievement is part of wellbeing.

He states: “Visible learning is more than passing surface level tests. It involves impacting on the love of learning, inviting students to stay in learning and seeing the ways in which students can improve their healthy sense of wellbeing, respect for self and respect for others ... as well as enhancing achievement.”

There is potential impact from evidence-based research, collaboration and alignment of professionals’ expertise, to address the skills and qualification deficits and to close the attainment gaps in the UK.

The best schools in the UK do not purely focus on external exams, they seek to improve all pupils’ healthy sense of wellbeing. By determining pupils’ wellbeing levels, we can identify targets and strategies to overcome barriers to learning and to promote lifelong wellbeing.

  • Janet Williamson is principal of The Royal Belfast Academical Institution in Northern Ireland.

Further information

For more information on the work of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, including its Fellowship Awards, visit www.wcmt.org.uk


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