All work and no play makes Jack a stressed boy

Duncan Byrne, headmaster of Loughborough Grammar School, reflects on the results of his school’s wellbeing survey into the correlation between extra-curricular participation and happiness

Over the past five years, one of the most common points for discussion in education has been students’ mental health and what schools can do to help their pupils become more resilient and adaptable. Teachers have long held the belief that the activities that we offer outside the curriculum have a positive effect on our students’ personal wellbeing, but only now is the research evidence emerging.

In April 2019, I was pleased to read the HMC-sponsored research into the value of school sport, published by Peter Clough, professor of psychology at the University of Huddersfield. Prof Clough’s findings included the discovery that physical activity increases mental toughness and helps students cope with the pressures of examinations – something that teachers have always suspected.

The belief that all boys, no matter their personality or interests, benefit from extra-curricular clubs and activities was behind the appointment of Loughborough Grammar School’s first assistant head co-curricular in autumn 2016. Dr Al Waters quickly introduced the Thomas Burton Award (named after our founder) to encourage all boys of all ages to participate in the extraordinary range of activities offered at the school.

During the last two days of summer term, we achieved over 1,000 hours of voluntary service with local community groups and special schools in a range of projects

The award has three main strands – head, hands and heart. Head refers to intellectual endeavour and includes participation in academic enrichment such as subject societies. Hands covers the creative arts and sporting activity, while heart focuses on activities that benefit the community such as volunteering and charitable work. On top of these, all boys must appear on a stage, set themselves a challenge and complete a piece of extended independent study. Insisting on breadth also means that pupils are not allowed to pigeon-hole themselves at too young an age as a ‘sportsman’, ‘academic’ or ‘musician’.

It is not really about the award. Rather it is a framework to develop rounded and healthy individuals. Initially our focus was to maximise and monitor boys’ involvement in extra-curricular activities. However, anecdotally, form tutors began wondering if there was a correlation between the boys’ rates of participation and their wellbeing. We have all heard parents explain why their child must stop playing football, or drop music lessons to ‘focus on his exams’, but we were noting again and again that such pupils were those whose wellbeing was most under strain while the busiest pupils seemed highly successful in balancing their commitments.

Wellbeing survey

We have been undertaking a termly wellbeing survey for a few years, using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS). This is a very simple survey of 14 questions.

Although the survey is anonymous, we give boys the option of putting their name if they need our help. From this, we have been able to track the wellbeing of classes and year groups from the average scores generated a month into each term. On the back of this termly survey, a year ago we added a series of questions to learn more about pupils’ recreational commitments both inside and outside of school, hoping to discover that there really was a correlation between extra-curricular participation and happiness. Our questions cover the following areas:

Sporting activity

Involvement in school clubs

Helping others

Trying new experiences

Reading for pleasure

Interacting face-to-face (rather than electronically!)

Engaging with the natural world.

The Warwick-Edinburgh test defines standard scores for positive and below-average wellbeing. Looking at the groups of pupils with above-average wellbeing (the ‘happy’ group), and those with below average wellbeing (‘unhappy’), we found a remarkable correlation with their recreation scores.

Out of the 530 pupils in these categories, those with higher wellbeing consistently had greater extra-curricular involvement. The graph below shows the data for 2018-19, although the pattern for the preceding year was remarkably similar.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Caveats and next steps

We are conscious that our homemade recreational survey has its limitations. However, we are confident enough in our observations to use our findings in two ways.

Firstly, when we have concerns about boys’ wellbeing, we are suggesting how they can ‘self-medicate’ by engaging in physical activity or by trying something new. Secondly, we have increased the number and type of enrichment days that we have as a school.

For instance, during the last two days of summer term, we achieved over 1,000 hours of voluntary service with local community groups and special schools in a range of projects, understanding that wellbeing benefits from helping other people.

Of course, the correlation between these two data sets does not prove that there is a causal relationship between the extra-curricular and personal happiness.

However, the level of correlation is enough for us to promote with even greater certainty the Thomas Burton Award to Loughborough Grammar School boys of all ages. One often hears in the national debate reflections on how the resources at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services’ disposal are insufficient to deal with the mental health epidemic affecting the young. Let’s not forget that prevention is better than cure.

The research into what helps young people to deal with the inevitable stresses and reversals of fortune that come their way consistently points to the benefits of the activities that our schools offer on a daily basis.

We must not underplay their importance.

Duncan Byrne

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