Improving children’s wellbeing

Ros McLellan, Maurice Galton, Susan Steward and Charlotte Page look at the successes and failures of the Creative Partnerships programme.

Children's painted hands in the airWellbeing has long been regarded as an important indicator of a civilised and developed society. But how can we measure young people’s wellbeing and can wellbeing be fostered by educational initiatives? These are the types of questions that interested us as we embarked on a piece of research, The impact of creative partnerships on the wellbeing of children and young people, funded by the charity Creativity, Culture and Education, which was responsible for running the Creative Partnerships programme. Specifically, we were interested in whether the Creative Partnerships programme could foster student wellbeing.

We first of all had to pin down what was meant by wellbeing. We drew on thinking in the fields of economics and psychology particularly, but also from sociology and development studies. Economists distinguish between objective and subjective indicators of wellbeing, and we were particularly interested in the latter. They also distinguish between hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, with the former being concerned with what makes life pleasurable (i.e. feeling good), whilst the latter characterises the good life as one in which an individual realises their potential and engages in meaningful work (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Sociologists highlighted wellbeing as being not just an individual quality, but social in nature (Putnam, 2000). We therefore conceptualised wellbeing as comprising positive feelings and positive function in relation to both individual and social contexts.

Very few researchers have attempted to assess young people’s wellbeing in a school context. We therefore developed a specific self-report measure for the study. This questionnaire, ‘How I feel about myself and school,’ comprised four wellbeing scales: interpersonal, life satisfaction, perceived competence and negative emotion.

Eudaimonic conceptualisations of wellbeing identify intrinsic motivation as central to wellbeing. When we do something for the sake of it, because we are interested rather than for some external reward, we are likely to experience wellbeing (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Intrinsic motivation is also thought to be a crucial component of creativity (Amabile, 1996). Initiatives such as the Creative Partnerships programme, which brings artists into schools to work with teachers and young people, may foster wellbeing if young people who engage in arts activities experience intrinsic motivation.

We recruited 40 schools to work with us. Half were recommended to us as schools which were successfully running the Creative Partnerships programme. These were matched (in terms of location, community served, size, specialism etc.) with schools which were not participating in the programme, overall representing a broad range of schools. Half of the schools were primary and half were secondary. In the first phase of the research a survey was conducted, with students in Years 3, 6, 8 and 10 completing the questionnaire. In the second phase, nine schools (five primary and four secondary) that appeared to be engaged in interesting, creative or wellbeing initiatives, and whose students reported relatively high levels of wellbeing, were used as more detailed case studies.

So do initiatives such as Creative Partnerships foster young people’s wellbeing? Disappointingly, our analysis of 5,321 students’ responses to the questionnaire suggested the answer ‘no.’ Overall there were no differences between students at Creative Partnerships schools and those not participating in the programme on any of the four wellbeing dimensions. However, to leave the discussion here would be premature. There were some interesting interactions between age, gender and type of school attended, whether they were involved in Creative Partnerships or not.

In general, older children reported experiencing wellbeing less frequently than younger children, whilst boys were more positive than girls about their perceived competence (experienced more frequently) and negative emotion (experienced less frequently). Most interesting was the finding that Year 3 children at Creative Partnerships schools were significantly more positive than their counterparts who were not at Creative Partnerships schools, across all wellbeing dimensions, whilst the trend reversed for Year 6 children. By contrast, there were few differences at secondary level. Thus the Creative Partnerships appeared to be having a positive impact on the wellbeing of the youngest children. It also became apparent that the Year 6 children, at least in these schools, had experienced a change to a more didactic approach as teachers felt compelled to prepare them for SATS, which coincided with the point at which the survey was conducted. This might be one reason why the positive effect on wellbeing seen in Year 3 children at Creative Partnerships schools was not seen in the Year 6 children.

Although all the schools were involved in creative initiatives and could articulate the work they were doing to promote young people’s wellbeing, a comparison of the primary Creative Partnerships and other school case studies revealed a difference in emphasis. Primary schools not involved in the Creative Partnerships programme put initiatives in place as a means to an end – to make students feel better about themselves (for instance a programme to help children feel more confident about reading). Creative Partnerships schools did not see the need for separate wellbeing strategies, and instead took a more holistic approach where creative work permeated the curriculum and consequently promoted not only feeling well but also functioning effectively.

Unlike primary schools, where creative initiatives operated at whole-school (or at least cohort) level, secondary schools tended to target small groups of students for Creative Partnerships work (for instance underachieving or unmotivated students) as part of a school improvement strategy, and worked with these students outside regular lessons. Performance culture, the undervaluing of the arts, and indeed of wellbeing outcomes, discouraged schools from promoting the arts and the work that creative practitioners did in the school. Students were encouraged to focus on academic subjects and those that would enhance their career prospects, so that the ethos and approach of Creative Partnerships could not permeate the school.

We believe that there is evidence to suggest that creative initiatives, such as Creative Partnerships, do have the potential to foster young people’s wellbeing in school. Our research raises further questions about young people’s wellbeing, and the mechanisms through which creative initiatives enhance wellbeing. However, we would support the view that schools should introduce and develop creative initiatives to foster wellbeing. Furthermore we would urge the government to support creative work in schools and bring back wellbeing outcomes into the Ofsted framework to allow schools focus on such issues, which ultimately will help us realise our aspirations of a civilised and developed society.

Ros McLellan is a lecturer in teacher education and development at the University of Cambridge. Maurice Galton and Susan Steward are also in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and Charlotte Page is a teacher and education researcher.

  1. Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  2. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008b). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: an introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 1-11.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
  4. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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