James O’Shaughnessy on how the Tories got the well-being bug

One of the interesting things about the politics of well-being is how, in the UK, it began as a movement on the Left, through figures like Geoff Mulgan (the head of Blair’s policy unit), and Richard Layard, but then managed to cross over and become a cross-party consensus, both in the Lib Dems (through people like Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s policy advisor) and even more surprisingly in the Conservative Party. Who would have thought David Cameron would push forward ‘national well-being measurements’, create a National Citizens Service, inaugurate parenting classes, and double the funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

As I’ve discussed over the last couple of days, there is a Neo-Aristotelian consensus now, of politicians, policy wonks and even civil servants who believe humans can achieve flourishing and governments and civil society can help them in that journey. This includes Neo-Aristotelian Tories such as David Willetts, Ferdinand Mount, and Oliver Letwin – who wrote his thesis on Aristotelian ethics and the emotions (I reviewed it here).

This week, I met one of the Neo-Aristotelians on the Right: James O’Shaughnessy, formerly head of Cameron’s policy unit, which Cameron sadly scrapped last year and replaced with a civil service-run unit  (a mistake, I fear). James left government to become a ‘social entrepreneur’ with a particular focus on integrating Positive Psychology into education.

We met in the RSA, and James told me about how the Conservatives got into the ‘well-being agenda’, how he became a convert to Positive Psychology, how it fits into the new reformed education landscape, and why he thinks the future of well-being education is not grand national programmes like Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) but rather smaller evidence-based experiments. The interview will hopefully be used in an article but I thought blog-readers would enjoy the full transcript.

The politics of well-being  arguably began as a New Labour phenomenon, through people like Geoff Mulgan and Richard Layard. So how did it get taken up by the Conservative Party? 

It was particularly taken up by Steve Hilton, who came to government from his Good Business consultancy; and by Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle and the idea of eudaimonia. It’s also something David Cameron believes in, and for him it’s a way of demonstrating that Tories are not people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, which is one of the stereotypes he is trying to dispel. There’s also the sense that you can’t talk about things like family values or a broken society entirely from an economic point of view, as the Fabians do.

Some dry Tories were dismissive of it, and there was a lot of scepticism – but that’s part of the point, for Cameron to show he’s different. Personally, I think the politics of well-being is deeply conservative – the idea that life is about more than money. Some on the right are sceptical about the idea of using well-being measurements to guide policy partly because they say the data is so aggregated its meaningless, and partly because the idea that government should promote a particular philosophy of happiness is dangerous socialism.

What do you think of those criticisms? 

Well, it’s true that if you aggregate well-being measurements up to the national level, it becomes so aggregated its basically flat over time, and never seems to go up or down. But the data can still tell you interesting things at the regional or local level. And it’s a start. In politics you can’t go straight from A to Z. Policy changes take time.

Tell me why you decided to leave government and become a social entrepreneur in education. 

I have a sceptical nature, so don’t believe politicians are always the best at running things. It’s about giving people the choice over how to do things. So the idea in many areas of social policy is to let social entrepreneurs provide a range of services and then people can choose for themselves. ‘Progressive ends, conservative means’ is the mantra. In education, that means things like free schools and academies. When you pursue policies like that, the more interesting stuff is actually happening outside of policy, at the grassroots level of services delivery. So I decided to leave government and become an education entrepreneur. There’s now a flowering of opportunity in that field which I wanted to be part of.

Some people think there’s a paradox in Conservative well-being policy. On the one hand, the government has pushed forward things like national well-being measurements. But in education policy, Michael Gove has scrapped Ofsted well-being measurements, and seems to be about to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.  

I’ll explain why that’s not a paradox. It’s an epistemic point, about who can claim to possess knowledge. The disposition of Tories is that government is a really bad place to claim epistemic hegemony superiority because of things like the lessons of public choice theory, and the power of vested interests and of Whitehall. If you are too top-down, the programmes you put forward are quickly out of date, and create worse results than if you give institutions the opportunity to experiment and choose programmes that work. As long as they properly track the outcomes of those programmes and share the information, then the market improves.

I’m a big believer in evidence-based education policy, and in the work of people like the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, who announced a £200 million project last year to explore evidence-based interventions for disadvantaged children. If you empower independent institutions to choose their programmes, and parents to choose their schools, then you get a much richer ecosystem than if the Department of Education creates one well-being programme for the entire country.

But in this new evidence-based ecosystem, how would schools discover which programmes worked? Would there be like a gocompare.com site? 

Good question. At the moment we’re lacking a free market in information. There are a few university departments, it’s quite a small community, everyone seems to know each other. We need a repository of evidence for well-being education.

So it sounds like the government is going to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, which was an example of that sort of centralised top-down policy.  

[SEAL, as many blog-readers will know, was inspired by Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence, and was enthusiastically taken up by New Labour and introduced it into the national curriculum in 2002. The government only got round to testing if it actually worked a decade later…and found it didn’t.]

The evidence for it was fairly patchy. The position of the government is that they’re all for schools trying well-being interventions out, but the government’s responsibility is to make sure kids learn and can get jobs at the end of school. They’re open-minded about how schools get there.

Some people, including me, expected SEAL to be replaced by the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP) – a three-year pilot scheme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology [that’s him on the right]. It was supposed to be a careful, rigorous, evidence-based intervention to improve young people’s well-being and academic performance. But the evidence after the three-year pilot was not a home run, was it? 

The results were pretty good but you need to keep repeating the intervention for it to work. I’m now working with Richard Layard to try and get funding for a four-year pilot of an intervention that combines the Penn Resiliency Project with other evidence-based interventions.

How does Positive Psychology fit into your model of education? 

I didn’t want to be providing any old education, but rather a particular vision of it, that’s deeply informed by Positive Psychology. I’d spent a reasonable amount of time talking to Martin Seligman. What’s so appealing is the growth model rather than the disease model, and the idea there’s a continuum from ill to well to flourishing. I buy into that philosophically, but it also has a strong evidence base. And what’s fascinating is the interplay with ancient philosophy and virtue ethics. The cutting edge science ties into the best that’s been thought in the ancient world, by philosophers like Aristotle. So Positive Psychology is as much about character development as well-being. It’s part of a developing view that education should be about developing character, rather than merely passing exams.

So my idea was to build a ‘whole school’ approach to building character, that stretches across the whole curriculum and extra-curricular activities, even down to the dining room and how meals are conducted and what pupils eat. Martin Seligman, for example, has talked of extending Positive Psychology into English classes.

I was organising a round-table with Marty Seligman and some others to try and create a framework for a whole curriculum that people could apply in different schools. My career plan was to build on that framework, which would be freely available to anyone to use, to create services to sell into schools. Then Anthony Seldon [headmaster of Wellington] called and asked if I wanted to come on board with the Wellington academies trust. I agreed, and started a fortnight ago. The idea is to take the DNA of Wellington, and export it into different contexts – academies, prep schools and international schools.

Wellington is clearly a pioneer when it comes to ‘character education’ – the first British school to integrate Positive Psychology into its curriculum. But how easy will it be to export that DNA? To what extent does Wellington’s ‘character factory’ depend on its financial resources, and physical assets like the grounds, the facilities, the beauty of the place? Can you export that into an inner-city academy? 

Well, we’re trying to find out. Look at KIPP charter schools in the US, which are explicitly about creating character, and which work in some pretty rough neighbourhoods. Or look at the success of the Ark academies. As a social entrepreneur you want to create the most impact, and you could argue that Wellington has less impact on its pupils because they already have a lot going for them. The Penn Resiliency Project had the most impact on the more challenged kids. But of course, a private school costs £30,000 a year for a pupil, and a state school around £5,000. So we need to find what that buys you. I would also like to try to build find elite partners for the schools, like the Royal Shakespeare Companies or Wasps rugby clubs of this world, for example, so we can try to replicate some of the College’s breadth and excellence across the group.

But the aim is not to create a new programme and introduce it into the national curriculum as a nation-wide subject? 

No. The reason SEAL didn’t succeed, why it didn’t have any longevity, was it was too centralised, it was just telling people what to do. [James’ boss at the Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien, wrote an interesting blog this month about how the Tories hope best-practice will naturally spread through the education ‘eco-system’ through things like chains of academies – you can read it here.]

There’s a lot I like about the idea of teaching Positive Psychology in schools, but my concern is that it becomes a form of rigid indoctrination, where if you disagree with the prescribed route, you are deemed unwell, sick even. If done badly, it could easily suppress creative or critical thinking, and attempt to create happiness by rote-learning or drill-training. That’s not going to work, is it? 

Well, I think you can encourage different routes to excellence. Wellington, for example, encourages people to ‘be the best you can be’. It’s the Aristotelian idea of virtue in excellence. And you can try lots of things to try and find out what you’re best at. That’s what really encourages self-esteem: walking into a room and knowing that, of everyone there, you’re the best at some particular activity. In general, though, I don’t have a problem with indoctrination! If you’ve grown up without structures and boundaries, it’s actually a relief to have them. I think we’ve learnt what’s wrong with progressive education, with the child-centred model where educationalists felt ‘who are adults to pressure children to learn?’ The result of that was a generation with high levels of illiteracy and a massive increase in educational inequality. Free creative thinking is fine for a small group who are already quite naturally talented. But it’s really bad for those students unable to cope with it.

I’m also wary of extending the Positive Psychology dogma into every subject, so that you have positive economics, positive physics, positive history.  Shouldn’t English Literature at its best explore the dark side as well as the positive? I remember my first term in English A-Level I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Lectures on Hysteria. And I loved it!  

Yes, you have to be careful about the ‘positive’ label, it can be too narrow. It’s important not to be too blinkered, you can’t simply think positive and ignore objective facts.

Finally, is there a risk you could be criticised as creating a new free market in education when you were in office, and then profiting from it once you’re out of office? 

It’s not a privatised market, that’s important. It’s not for profit. The academies are run as charities, and any profits they make have to go back into the charitable purposes of the group. The board of the charity can set my salary, but that’s the only remuneration I get from my work with Wellington.

Thanks very much, James, and good luck. 

Thank you too.

2 thoughts on “James O’Shaughnessy on how the Tories got the well-being bug

  1. Pingback: Now We Are Two | The History of Emotions Blog

  2. ” I think we’ve learnt what’s wrong with progressive education, with the child-centred model where educationalists felt ‘who are adults to pressure children to learn?’ The result of that was a generation with high levels of illiteracy and a massive increase in educational inequality.”
    Actual evidence for this please? I am afraid I think this is not correct. It is a claim that has been waved around by Tories a great deal. 1) Did illiteracy increase? Over what period? Can this be matched up with ‘progressive education’? How would we do that? 2) How did the child-centred model cause or ‘result in’ increased educational inequality?

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