• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st December, 2009

In Bristol I find the true SEAL

A balance has yet to be struck between the art of framing a national child development policy to apply at scale, and the science of developing an intervention that can be shown to improve children’s lives.There are many examples of the former but none that has made a clear impact on child well-being; many of the latter, too, but none that has been taken successfully to scale.An example of the inherent difficulty is the UK government programme known as SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning). It has been made available to every primary school in England, and is now being tried in secondary schools.On the other side of this particular equation are the 22 school curricula that are known to improve children’s social and emotional development (and also, as Joe Durlak’s recent systematic review indicates, their educational performance).A starker reading of the basic scenario, which I confess I’ve been inclined to support in the past, points to the failings of a UK government that ignores the evidence and forces everybody to behave in a way that is unlikely to have any impact on children’s lives – not that we’ll ever know, because there’s no funding for rigorous evaluation.So it was with some misgivings on Friday that I went back to school with a colleague and one of the originators of SEAL to re-examine the story by visiting a small primary in Bristol in the west of England.It turns out to be not so simple. The rationale for preparing SEAL as an amalgam of proven models instead of implementing one or more off the shelf probably made sense a few years ago when less was known about appropriate adaptation and service design. The champions of SEAL felt that UK teachers would not respond to the detailed lesson plans used by their US counterparts for whom the proven models were designed.On closer inspection, the malign hand of government turns out to have been a wriggling mass of fingers, thumbs and toes of politicians, civil servants, teachers unions, expert advisers and more. Hearing about what really happened, one realises that it’s something of a miracle that anything at all was delivered, never mind that it should have found its way into more or less every school.The best example of the final product was impressive: lessons for every stage of a child’s development; lots of evidence of the programme around the school; enthusiastic teachers well supported with manuals, training and coaching; strong leadership, and an interest in monitoring impact.In this school at least, SEAL seemed just as likely to achieve the impact being sought by proven models such as PATHS (which is being introduced with equivalent care in Birmingham).SEAL has the advantage of being English, and having the support of government as well as the approval of many teachers and heads.But we don’t know if it works. Birmingham, which is pitching well supported PATHS against routinely provided SEAL, may provide the beginnings of an answer.But there are a host of other enquiries and discoveries to be made before we know how to improve the lives of children not in 100 or even 1,000 schools, but in all 25,000 or so English schools.Of course, all this presupposes that public opinion supports the efforts of schools to improve children’s social and emotional development. On my travels, I also learned about politicians who feel strongly that schools should be about schooling, by which they all too often mean the ‘three Rs,’ when just a few hours in an ordinary primary school would surely convince them that something has to be done to afford students the chance to learn.One boy, struggling to understand how respect inside the classroom should mirror expectations outside it admitted without embarrassment: "We don’t have rules at home. If you do something wrong, you get a slap".

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