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The evidence base on social and emotional learning is complex and far from comprehensive, but teachers need our ‘best bets’ now


26 Jan 2018

Stephanie Waddell reviews EIF's recent roundtable on the state of social and emotional learning (SEL) in UK schools, including the key questions schools are seeking to answer, and how these questions will shape our ongoing work in this area.

Earlier this month, EIF and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) together hosted a roundtable on social and emotional learning in the UK. A lively discussion produced as much consensus as can be expected among a group of 15 eminent academics and other experts in the field: while the evidence remains complex and incomplete, there is a need for some ‘best bet’ answers now. They have clearly thrown down the gauntlet to us – and, at the same time, the government’s mental health green paper is offering both increased political profile and opportunity for this work.

For our part, we are ready for the challenge and excited by our planned collaboration with EEF. Together, we’re aiming to produce guidance for schools in the autumn that will cut through the morass of information out there about social and emotional learning, wellbeing and mental health. We want to offer them a clear roadmap by which to navigate the tricky questions of what approach is right for their school and their children. We’ll be building on previous work in this space, notably that led by Professor Katherine Weare for the National Children’s Bureau, and the new resource for primary schools developed by the Anna Freud Centre under the Heads Together campaign.

We’ll be grappling with many of the tricky issues debated at the roundtable. How do we help schools to ask the right questions based on what we know from the evidence, without being prescriptive and losing the critical sense of local ownership? How do we do this in a format that schools can readily engage with? What do we know from research about the factors within the school environment that foster social and emotional development? What are the critical elements of programmes that have been shown to work? What could we do without?

We’ll attempt to describe clearly how social and emotional learning relates to mental health – that these things are not one and the same, but that targeted mental health support sits best within a school environment that fosters wellbeing, prioritises social and emotional skill development, and responds to individual need.

Our roundtable participants decried the ‘relentless’ focus on attainment within schools in strong terms, and lamented the impact that this was having on children’s wider essential life skills. They talked about the language used to describe teachers, often in schools in deprived areas, who had chosen to prioritise social and emotional learning over academic attainment, as being ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’. Though ‘pragmatic’ may be a better word: these are teachers who realise the simple truth that some children will not be able to achieve academically unless they are taught the skills that will enable them to focus, to believe they can succeed, to realise that they can shape their own futures.

We are ambitious for this project, delighted to be working with EEF, and privileged to be able to call upon such an esteemed group to shape our thinking. We are indebted to the academics and other experts who willingly gave their time to join our roundtable, and grateful to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for their funding and enthusiastic support for this work.

About the author

Stephanie Waddell

Steph is assistant director for impact and knowledge mobilisation at EIF.