For colleges across the UK, June 2017 marked the results of the first Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment, a new scheme designed to provide a rigorous review of teaching and learning in further education institutes. Of the 106 assessed, 14 further education colleges achieved gold status, 46 silver and 31 bronze*, and while the proportion of institutes achieving the top ranking is undoubtedly encouraging, there remains the question of how those with lower ratings can improve their standing.
The TEF assessment considers a broad range of variables, with examples including teaching quality and student satisfaction. Clearly, there are a great number of factors which influence these variables, and as such, a simple solution for improvement is difficult to offer. However, advances in neuroscience, human psychology and the medical sciences have made it quite apparent that the importance of psychological wellbeing cannot be disputed.
Our psychological wellbeing affects every aspect of our lives. Regardless of age or circumstance, a prolonged disruption can have a significant detrimental effect upon an individual’s cognitive functioning, physical health, relationships, satisfaction and overall quality of life. The impact of change and uncertainty is a leading risk factor in psychological wellbeing, and in further education environments, where the navigation of transitions and changing requirements is so fundamental, it is easy to see how an absence of support might affect staff and students – and in turn, assessment ratings.
The question, then, becomes how we might use our knowledge of human psychology and wellbeing to bring about a positive change within education environments.
Across the 2016–2017 academic year, Positive Group worked with students from Reading University to deliver cognitive and behavioural tools and techniques designed to manage pressure and build resilience. These evidence-based tools encouraged self and social awareness of moods and emotions, with an emphasis on normalisation and the importance of perception rather than eliminating ‘negative’ experiences. At the end of the programme, 89% of surveyed students reported an increased ability to control unnecessary worries, 69% an increased ability to focus on academic work and 70% an increased ability to deal with pressure and setbacks.
While the importance of supporting the student population remains for colleges, the greater contact hours and more intimate relationships between staff and students in these environments puts the teaching population more directly in the spotlight. It is now widely acknowledged that emotions and behaviours are contagious. Indeed, data collected by Positive found 84% of sampled staff agreed or strongly agreed that their moodstate impacts the behaviour of their students, and as such, it may be deemed futile to attempt to achieve a positive change in the student population without similar support for staff.
On a practical level, there is in fact an extremely strong argument for centring psychological wellbeing initiatives on staff. In the first instance, supporting staff to better manage stress and pressure means quality of teaching is less likely to suffer during challenging periods. As well as improving assessments of teaching, such consistency will immediately affect students’ experiences and satisfaction. However, as educational specialists, staff are also ideally placed to deliver training to students.
By helping staff to improve their own psychological wellbeing and then supporting them to pass on their learning to students, colleges can drive change at the multiple levels required even with significant time and financial restrictions.
The world of further education can involve great pressure, change and uncertainty for staff and students alike. As assessment frameworks become more intelligent and comprehensive, institutes wishing to succeed must decrease their reliance upon simple, tick-box style solutions, and instead, adapt their approaches to acknowledge the bigger picture and the true complexity of their human elements. For education institutes of all kinds, a commitment to psychological wellbeing and the support of social and emotional learning provides the very real opportunity to improve assessment scores and, most importantly, to help students and staff at all levels to fulfil their true potential.
Dr. Brian Marien, Founder and Director of Positive Group - specialists in evidence-based programmes to improve psychological wellbeing and build resilience enabling individuals and teams to fulfill their potential.
*the remaining 15 FE colleges received a ‘provisional’ rating, meaning they did not have sufficient data to be fully assessed
About Dr Brian Marien, Founder & Director, Positivegroup.org: Dr Brian Marien is a Founder and Director of Positive Group, a Doctor of Medicine and a health psychologist. He studied cognitive and behavioural psychology at Kings College London and wrote his master’s thesis on occupational stress and ‘burnout’.
Over the past 10 years he has worked collaboratively with a highly experienced team of psychologists and neuroscientists at Positive Group to combine research-based knowledge, practical cognitive techniques and adaptive behaviours that are readily integrated into day to day life. He has worked with senior leadership teams to embed ‘Positive Programmes’ in Asia, USA, Australia, UK and Europe.