New curriculum to improve soft skills in schools boosts children’s health and behavior

A trial of a new curriculum to improve soft skills in secondary school children has shown that it can boost their physical health and behavior, as well as changing their career aspirations.

The Healthy Minds curriculum, includes elements on building resilience, navigating social media, looking after mental health, developing healthy relationships and understanding the responsibilities of being a parent. It was trialed with 3,500 children aged 11-12 in 34 English secondary schools over a four year period.

Soft skills, such as people skills and emotional intelligence, are increasingly in demand in the labor market given that these skills are not readily substituted with technology. From 2020 Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) will be compulsory in UK schools for adolescents, but until now there has been little evidence about how this can be taught in an effective manner and no official curriculum guidance. A 2015 House of Commons Education Committee report highlighted that the quality of PSHE, as currently taught in schools, is sub-optimal and teaching delivery required improvement in 40 per cent of secondary schools. It is routinely taught by teachers with no specific training in the subject.

An evaluation by the London School of Economics and Political Science found "robust evidence" that the Healthy Minds curriculum improves physical health of participants. The report's authors, Grace Lordan, Associate Professor in Behavioural Science, and Alistair McGuire, Professor of Health Economics, compared the children of 23 school cohorts who had taken part in the trial of Healthy Minds with those of 16 school cohorts which continued with the traditional non-standardised PSHE offerings. The students who received Healthy Minds had one hour of teaching each week over four years alongside the traditional secondary school timetable.

The incremental cost of teaching Healthy Minds instead of teaching as usual is small - £100 per child over the whole 4-year period. And the benefits seem substantial. On the primary outcome (global health) students who received Healthy Minds improved their position by 10 percentiles (out of 100) - a substantial increase. There were also positive and significant gains in terms of lower levels of physical difficulties (11 percentiles) and pain (10 percentiles). Healthy Minds also increased the quality time its students spent with their family. Overall, the evaluation showed gains to the health and behavior of the students receiving Healthy Minds, but no impact on emotional wellbeing. The gains of Healthy Minds are larger in many domains for boys compared to girls. The researchers cannot say why this occurred, but do note that boys have lower starting points in health and behavior so it is possible the curriculum is catching them up with their female peers. The gains across the multiple domains compare favorably with the maximum cost allowed by NICE per Quality Adjusted Life Year of £30,000. Here is a clear case where prevention is as cost-effective as cure.

Healthy Minds also changes children's career aspirations. At 16 years those who were exposed to Healthy Minds are less likely to choose competitive individualistic work and more likely to choose work that involves interactions with "people." It also significantly decreased the likelihood that boys aspired towards traditional male work.

This is the first study to evaluate an intervention in this age group to change soft skills. It is the first evaluation of its kind ever in the UK.

The report concludes: "Our empirical evidence provides strong support for the introduction of the Healthy Minds curriculum."

It also states: "Currently there is a debate in the UK around specific governmental policy on PSHE that encourages investments in the knowledge, understanding and non-cognitive skills adolescents need to manage their lives. The debate in England has culminated with the UK government introducing guidance in 2019 that obliges secondary schools to timetable a PSHE curriculum in 2020. The importance of these skills is echoed in the growth in their need on the labour market in the UK because of an increasing tendency for jobs to be automated that do not need these skills. Independently, preparing teenagers for a healthy and happy life is important in and of itself. Our work highlights that this can be done with some success at school level."

Dr Lordan commented:

One of my research areas involves thinking about the type of skills that kids today will need to future proof their work prospects. Healthy Minds offers skills that cannot be replaced by robots, and at the same time help children in the UK have happier and healthier adult lives. What's not to like?"

Lucy Bailey, CEO of Bounce Forward, the charity which delivered Healthy Minds, added:

The results speak for themselves and the stories about the positive impact on individuals are truly heart-warming, all students need Healthy Minds. This unique study highlights the importance of good quality teacher training and the many benefits of delivering a resilience-based curriculum."

Julie Collins, Headteacher of the Leigh Academy in Dartford, Kent, which took part in the trial, said:

If we look at academic achievement, fixed-term exclusions, and attendance, there is a difference between the students who had the Healthy Minds programme and those who have not."

"Over the past 5 years Healthy Minds has really helped my year group understand each other's feelings a lot better, it has helped us look at situations in-depth rather than just what they are on the surface." (Healthy Minds Student, Year 11 Student)

"I have been resilient by coping because last year my Mum died. Healthy Minds has helped me because it has shown me how to act and overcome obstacles." (Healthy Minds Student, Year 8 Student)

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