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An interview with Sir Anthony Seldon

Amongst many things, Anthony is a decorated contemporary historian; author; former University Vice Chancellor and Master of Wellington College, (one of Britain’s leading independent schools). He is the founder of ‘Action for Happiness’, an organisation which supports schools to offer quality character education provision, which he famously calls ‘happiness lessons’.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Anthony is an advocate for the work we do at Role Models and continues to be generous to us with his time and wisdom.

Sir Anthony and DC

Seldon made headlines in The Times the day before we spoke, ‘Teaching wellbeing in schools is a life or death issue’.

The harrowing statistic that provoked Anthony’s article is that between 2016 and 2020, 319 students died by suicide while at university. When you bear in mind that this statistic is only reflective of young people at university, and the truth is that 862 young people between the age of 15 and 24 died by suicide in the UK between 2020 - 2021 alone (Samaritans, 2022), one understands the urgency of his plea.

While exploring “how pitifully little schools were doing to give young people the skills to manage their lives independently and to prepare them to cope at university”, Sir Anthony recalled sneers from his colleagues and the Government in 2006, when he introduced ‘Wellbeing and Happiness’ to the curriculum at Wellington.

Seldon campaigns for prevention over cure when it comes to young people’s mental health, “shoving more money at counsellors and medication - after problems have manifested” just doesn’t cut it.

I spoke with Sir Anthony as he walked between meetings through London's Hyde Park, “I’ll be walking, I’m always walking,” he forewarned.

Sir Anthony Seldon walking the epic Western Front Way

What do you believe to be the most pressing challenge young people face today?

They need support so that they can form a secure identity. Once you forge that, life becomes much easier. Identity is formed by stable loving relationships. What doesn’t help, currently, is how social media intrudes upon the lives of young people. They really need time and quiet to form those relationships and claim their sense of self.

What needs to be done to confront these challenges?

Schools can do much more. Schools, sadly and puzzlingly, have made themselves into exam factories - whereby they validate a child not by their character, their mental health or sense of goodness as a human being, but what they achieve in Maths, German or Science. These are important subjects, but not more important than the formation of a secure human being.

The best schools develop character either intentionally or as part of the ‘hidden curriculum’, with emphasis on formation of character traits: resilience, strength to withstand adversity, communication, empathy, how to express their concerns, an ability to listen to others without judgment, confidence… These are skills young people can learn.

You might be talented at languages or physics; but if you can’t live at peace with yourself this will be of limited value.

The role of school is so vital to support young people to develop secure character so they can make the best of life and not develop into a generation of people who really can’t cope. They might get into university, but drop out. They get a job, but can’t work effectively because they don’t have social skills.

To that end, do you believe that the life skills you mentioned - Resilience, Collaboration, Confidence - should be taught explicitly

That’s a big debate. I think they should. At Wellington, we pioneered ‘Happiness Skills for Life’. You can absolutely teach these things. Where schools do it well, it positively impacts their academic results. It’s entirely obvious that if children are more settled and secure they’ll perform better.

I am a fan of teaching character wellbeing as opposed to the alternative, which the Government prefers, which is that you don’t. You wait until young people break down: they can’t cope, self-harm, take drugs, medicines and pills. Teaching life skills explicitly is at the top of the waterfall, reducing the number who fall off the edge. Once you fall off, it can be harder to put people back together.

Capacity-building proactively, rather than waiting for young people to break down is what’s needed. I applaud the work that you are doing at Role Models because by the time many young people reach 18, it is too late. We must begin young.

This article was written by Brigid Shine, Content Executive at Role Models. Brigid has a decade of teaching experience in both the state & independent sectors in the UK and the Middle East.

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