New research turns conventional wisdom on its head: The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life is a child’s emotional health, and least important is academic achievement. Richard Layard argues that these results indicate that we need an educational revolution where schools explicitly aim to improve the wellbeing of their children as well as their academic performance.
What makes for a satisfying life? For centuries this has been the subject of philosophical speculation. But today it can be settled by evidence. For we now have surveys which follow the same people through childhood and, when they are adults, ask them how satisfied they are with their lives. This makes it possible to study which dimensions of child development are the best predictors of a satisfying adult life – is it intellectual development, social behaviour or emotional health?
In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.
The reasoning which lies behind this approach is so common that it bears some analysis. It embodies two fallacies. The first is that economic success is the most important thing for each individual (and each nation). It is true that academic success is a powerful predictor of subsequent income. But, when we look at any group of adults, they differ hugely in how satisfied they are with their lives. But their different incomes explain under 2 per cent of that variation. The biggest factors at work are mental health and the person’s ability to form good personal relationships. Academic success is no guarantee of either of these. Both are issues which need to be addressed directly. Moreover addressing them directly will not distract from academic performance but enhance it – since happy children learn better. Schools, worried by the pressure of targets for GCSE and A level, would actually do better academically if they also paid more attention to the emotional health of their children.
So we need an educational revolution where schools explicitly aim to improve the wellbeing of their children as well as their academic performance. In an age of measurement, this will probably require that schools measure their pupils’ wellbeing, just as they measure academic performance and physical wellbeing. It will require each school to have a wellbeing code. And it will need a fully professional attitude to teaching life skills. There are now well-evidenced programmes for teaching social and emotional learning, sex and relationships, healthy living, parenting, mindfulness and so on. We are trialling a combination of these programmes in a 4-year curriculum in 31 secondary schools. Teachers need specific training to teach these difficult subjects.
Our analysis of the British Cohort Study also has a more general object. We want the whole of public policy to have a different, new objective – of improving the life-satisfaction of the population. This requires that we have good quantitative evidence on all the factors that affect life-satisfaction – so that we can at last have a Treasury which maximised the right kind of “bang for the buck”. It is an ambitious project, which ought to provide a centre-piece for social science in the 21st century.