International positive education network – first conference

I attended the Ultimate Wellbeing and Mental Health in Education Conference in London May 5 2017. It was organised by the IPEN network ( and chaired by its’ President, Sir Anthony Seldon. The speaker line up included such luminaries as the founder of Positive Psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, Prof Lord Richard Layard, David Halpern, Chief Executive, Behavioural Insights Team, Prof Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a host of other impressive speakers from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai, and the OECD and various charities

An overly simplistic paraphrasing of some of the key speeches follows (NB apologies to those speakers I am misquoting but have included links for further clarification):

Professor Sir Simon Wessely – when people are faced with adversity their first response is not necessarily to run but to stay back and help others (think 9/11, London bombs). Anxiety around major traumas occurs less from the danger but when individuals can’t make contact with their loved ones – when phone lines break down, for instance, individuals experience 25% more upset.

Some ‘talking therapy’ (my words) if instituted too early do not help but can exacerbate symptoms post trauma. Other, more individualised and practical approaches, may be more effective. For instance, instead of counselling for a tube driver left traumatised as a result of a passenger death, Transport for London, now encourages the driver’s manager to sit alongside drivers for their first 3 or 4 journeys providing reassurance and moral support.

Every generation thinks their mental health is worse than the one before however this is not the case except for 18 – 24 years which is getting worse.

Prof Lord Richard Layard – emotional health at 16 is the best indicator of happiness later on in life and a better indicator than the highest qualifications. About 10% of school population at any one time is ‘mentally sick’. His recommendations: we must put happiness of children as an explicit goal (he mentioned that OFSTED used to consider it much more overtly than they do now),measure it, have a wellbeing code for the whole school, teach life skills at least once a week.

However, there are some social welfare type programmes, such as SEAL, which have had little or no impact because they were not sufficiently structured (very similar to Wessely’s view above).

Dr Abdulla Al Karam, Director General of KHDA Dubai – Some innovative work going on in private schools in Dubai – 100 days of positivity, undertaking Appreciative Inquiry to determine what works, with more than 85% of students in Dubai’s private schools consider themselves happy.

Dr Raj Chande – Behavioural Insights Team, Cabinet office – talked through a couple of interesting projects: First one was to encourage youngsters from socially deprived backgrounds to apply to competitive universities using a number of different techniques (handwritten letter addressed to individual sent to school and individual worked best with 11.1% compared to letter home only 10.7%, versus a control group of 8.5%). Another intervention looked at how to improve adult literacy and numeracy with the study measuring the impact of two interventions: teaching perseverance and the use of positive affirmations (Prof Cohen, Stanford). Result was that different interventions worked for different groups of individuals.

To get buy in an intervention needs to be

  1. Easy
  2. Timely
  3. Attractive
  4. Social (fit within the social context)

Dr Mario Piacentini, OECD, Pisa studies – very short but fascinating presentation on impact of stress on performance (and happiness) of students. Since 2015 PISA is now beginning to study well being of students. Key results: within each country there is significant variation in wellbeing. The least happiest year tends to be 15 years old, and girls tend to be less happy than boys; students can only flourish when countries are flourishing; competition in the classroom leads to added stress and the UK has one of the most competitive systems; when an individual teacher provides support and concern a student’s stress can be reduced by up to 17%; parents talking with children can also have a great positive impact; students’ sense of belongingness has been going down in recent years; it is possible to achieve great performance results without putting a lot of pressure on students – eg Finland; UK students are some of the most stressed.

Dr Shelley Kemp, Psychology Dept, University of Buckingham – University is aiming to be first positive university in the UK. Talked about the fact that teachers, as high in compassion, are often more at risk of burn out and stress. Need to take the pressure off by: challenging perfectionism, creating room for mistakes, recognising own limits and ensuring work life balance. Uni of Buckingham is adopting TecMilenio’s wellbeing eco system.

Dr Martin Seligman – a lot of it had been said before and referred to PERMA model. Went through his word maps he has developed with Google which are more predictive of death than other indicators (race, gender, marriage – 10%; diet and smoking – 20%; income and education – 25%) whilst words used in tweets predictive above 40%. Interesting question about grandchildren tweeting particular words linked to grandparents dying of cardio vascular disease so assumes communities or local areas of unhappiness and link to sickness. Talks about words being causal not correlational – what we say we become etc.

Key takeaways from the day:

  • People are amazingly resilient and much more than we give ourselves credit for
  • There are great initiatives/charities out there but it could do with some systemic interventions and support from the prevailing government of the day
  • In terms of interventions we must test impact and results and not assume one size fits all
  • We must look after ourselves before we can look after children/students (the analogy of fitting your life support first comes to mind)
  • Whilst children are feeling stressed, it can be down to perception. Early adults and particularly girls are most at risk but we can moderate negative effects as teachers and parents
  • Watch what we say as it becomes us


 ‘We cannot control our life circumstances but we can control our response to them.’