The dangerous rise of therapeutic education

In an extract from their new book, Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes argue that the relentless introduction of emotional literacy into the school curriculum is opening young people’s minds to the policing of the authorities.

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‘You know something has changed when young people want to know more about themselves than about the world.’ (Mark Taylor, history teacher, South London.)

Something has indeed changed. If you ask educators, parents and policymakers what is wrong with the British education system, many will identify too many stressful, demotivating tests, an irrelevant, boring and ‘elitist’ curriculum, lack of parity between academic and vocational education, rising levels of bullying, disengagement amongst growing numbers of young people and inequality of participation and achievement caused by social exclusion.

They will probably also agree with numerous reports that British children are the unhappiest, most stressed and anxious in Europe, fearful about everything from security and consumerism to lack of friends and global warming.

Few educators, parents and policymakers will question the idea that we face a crisis of unprecedented proportions in mental health and emotional problems, alongside claims that the materialism of Western societies, bad parenting and the pressures of schooling and modern life make childhood ‘toxic’ for the majority of children. Some might agree with neuroscientists that poor parenting damages emotional receptors in the brain permanently, requiring ‘repair’ through ‘nurturing interventions’ in nurseries and primary schools. The vast majority will agree that schools generally need to do much more to develop and enhance children and young people’s emotional wellbeing.

We argue in our new book – The Dangerous Rise Of Therapeutic Education – that, far from getting to the heart of what is wrong with the British education system and what needs to be done in response, these concerns obscure a profound crisis of meaning which is producing a much more serious change than anything they suggest. We characterise this as the dangerous rise of therapeutic education, with far reaching implications for educational goals and practices and therefore for the ways in which education fosters a particular view of what it means to be human.

Charting the rise of therapeutic education

Sponsored enthusiastically by the British government, and supported by a huge professional and commercial industry, a deluge of interventions throughout the education system assess the emotional needs and perceived emotional vulnerability of children, young people and adults and claim to develop emotional literacy and wellbeing.

From the age of three onwards, day-to-day activities throughout the education system require children to participate in circle time, Philosophy for Children classes, nurture groups, peer mentoring and buddy schemes. From 10 years old, they might do drama workshops to deal with the ‘trauma of transition’ to secondary school, and more circle time in citizenship and personal, social and health education lessons to create empathetic, tolerant and emotionally literate citizens.

Other subjects such as history, English and biology might also be marshalled for emotional literacy. In colleges and universities, students will experience induction programmes that signal all the emotional support on offer, while lectures and assessment processes aim to build self-esteem and make students feel good about themselves. They might take part in group sessions to assess their starting levels of self-esteem and confidence and record their progress, and tutorials that elicit and record their emotional responses to their course. In workplaces, activities to deal with stress, harassment, bullying, appraisal and performance review increasingly focus on emotional responses to work.

Thousands of teachers, learning assistants, retention officers, disability liaison officers and learning support managers are supported in these activities by growing numbers of children and young people trained to develop their peers’ emotional wellbeing. Buddy schemes in secondary schools train 14-year-olds in counselling techniques and psychodrama so that they can act as mentors to 11-year-olds moving to secondary school: one scheme in the south-west of England is called ‘Angels – a nice guy every time life sucks’. The UK government is currently evaluating a scheme to bring school leavers back into schools as mentors, while students in universities can have their peer mentoring activities assessed towards their degree. Teachers, classroom assistants, parents and support staff, such as canteen workers, can attend courses to become ‘emotional nurses’ and to develop their own emotional literacy and wellbeing.

There is rapidly growing interest amongst policymakers and many proponents of the activities summarised above in shifting the emphasis from developing emotional literacy and enhancing emotional wellbeing to teaching ‘the means to be happy’.

Defining therapeutic education

Such activities embed populist therapeutic assumptions, claims and processes throughout education, signifying the idea that emotional wellbeing, emotional literacy and emotional competence are the most important outcomes of the education system.

We define any activity that focuses on perceived emotional problems and which aims to make educational content and learning processes more ‘emotionally engaging’ as ‘therapeutic education’. We recognise that defining the various activities and underlying assumptions we explore as ‘therapeutic’ does not accord with specialist definitions of ‘therapeutic’ from professionals in different branches of psychoanalysis, child and educational psychology and counselling.

Instead, our use of the term relates these activities to the broader emergence over the past 40 years of a ‘therapeutic ethos’ throughout Anglo-American culture and politics. One feature of this ethos is an exponential extension of counselling, psychoanalysis and psychology into more areas of social and personal life, policy and professional practice. But the significance of a therapeutic ethos as we and others define it is much more than this: it offers a new sensibility, a form of cultural script, a set of explanations and underlying assumptions about appropriate feelings and responses to events, and a set of associated practices and rituals through which people make sense of themselves and others.

Populist accounts of emotional problems and associated claims are embedded in educational policy and practice. A therapeutic culture has begun to ‘influence and arguably dominate the public’s system of meaning [and to have] emerged as a serious cultural force’ (1). Only by relating policies and practices emerging in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces to broader themes in culture and politics can we reveal the underlying therapeutic ethos.

Popularising therapeutic orthodoxies

The vocabulary, mindset and assumptions of popular therapy permeate a vast array of lifestyle, confessional and reality television programmes, the huge literary genre of biographies and autobiographies titled in bookshops as ‘tragic life stories’, women and men’s lifestyle magazines, weekend newspaper supplements and the ever-expanding self-help industry. There is a growing array of guide books on mental health.

We could cite examples of popular manifestations of therapy and everyday preoccupation with emotional vulnerability ad infinitum. Not only are educational policy and practice full of therapeutic vocabulary and assumptions, but so too are our personal and working lives. Far from being trivial, random and irrelevant anecdotes, such examples reflect some influential therapeutic orthodoxies.

These orthodoxies pervade everyday life and they have a powerful effect on the way we think about ourselves and each other. Consider how often you hear claims that past life experiences have long-term negative emotional effects for everyone, and particularly pernicious effects for an increasing minority. The overall message is that, behind our apparently confident facades, we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, emotionally fragile and vulnerable and, as a consequence, we need particular forms of emotional support. A parallel orthodoxy is that if we do not see this, or disagree with it, we are in denial or repressing our true feelings.

Defining the ‘diminished self’

Populist orthodoxies reflect and reinforce the concept of a ‘diminished self’. The manifestations of a therapeutic culture throughout the education system insert a particular cultural perspective of the self. This ‘regards most forms of human experience as the source of emotional distress…[where people] characteristically suffer from “an emotional deficit and possess a permanent consciousness of vulnerability”’ (2). A diminished human subject finds exposure to uncertainty and adversity, including disappointment, despair and conflict, simultaneously threatening to ‘the integrity of the self’ and inhibiting of it. A diminished sense of human potential denies the intellectual and privileges the emotional.

Diminished images of students and pupils are rife throughout the education system, reflected in the routine use of labels such as ‘vulnerable learners’, ‘at-risk learners’, students with ‘fragile identities’, ‘the disaffected and disengaged’, ‘the hard to reach’, people with ‘fractured and fragmented lives’, learners with ‘complex needs’ and ‘low self-esteemers’. Sometimes, whole groups such as asylum seekers learning English, the children of asylum seekers, working-class boys or 14-year-olds disaffected with school education, are deemed to ‘suffer from low self-esteem’ or to be ‘emotionally fragile’. ‘Low self-esteem’ is widely seen as the cause of social and educational difficulties.

Children are internalising similar ideas: ‘feeling stressy’, ‘being left out’ or ‘got at’, ‘having an anxious morning’ are routine expressions amongst eight-year-olds today. Older students, including adults on professional development and higher education courses, increasingly describe themselves as ‘suffering from low self-esteem’, citing feedback and being asked challenging questions in class as ‘stressful’.

The British education system has always been prone to labels rooted in discredited psychometric measures of intelligence, such as ‘thick’, ‘stupid’, ‘bright’ or ‘low ability’. Labels depicting emotional causes of problems with attitude, behaviour or achievement are much more recent and becoming more prevalent. They are a predictable outcome of activities that claim to address diminished perceptions and to empower their participants but which end up encouraging people to respond emotionally to day-to-day challenges. This circularity emerges through a changing cultural perspective about the self and its potential.

The emotional state

The British government under New Labour has embraced disparate concerns and psychological explanations about people’s emotional states. Policies that require nurseries, playgroups, schools, colleges and universities to address emotional problems and develop emotional wellbeing embed New Labour’s particular view of ‘social justice’ into educational policy and practice. The goals and institutional arrangements of the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy require welfare and education agencies to ensure that, as part of being ‘healthy’, ‘safe’ and able to ‘enjoy’ and ‘achieve’ educationally and socially, children’s mental health and wellbeing are paramount.

Guidance for nurseries and schools, including the Foundation Stage Profile, Social Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) strategy and the National Healthy Schools Standard, and a large number of other initiatives, encourage schools and colleges to address wellbeing through the curriculum, teaching activities and support systems. SEAL specifies 42 outcomes for three- to 11-year-olds and 50 for 11- to 16-year-olds, and schools are required to assess young children’s emotional competence in a Foundation Stage Profile. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is drawing up guidelines for primary schools to diagnose emotional wellbeing. There are over 40 instruments currently used to assess different aspects of ‘emotional competence’.

Emotional interventions receive large amounts of public funding. SEAL cost £10million in 2007/2008, with a further £31.2million ear-marked over the next three years. Anti-bullying schemes cost £1.7million a year, while peer mentoring currently receives £1.75million. Another £60million was added in July 2007 to educational expenditure for schools to improve emotional wellbeing, phased over the next three years to be £30million in 2010/2011. In October 2007, the UK Department for Children and Schools (DfCS) announced £60million for 25 pilot projects to introduce therapeutic interventions in schools for children at risk of mental ill-health.

Psychologists, therapists, counsellors and psychiatrists have never been more influential, creating a thriving commercial industry. The ex-Department for Education and Skills (DfES) lists over 70 organisations working in therapeutic education, ranging from specialist consultancies for circle time and emotional literacy, mental health and children’s organisations to lobbying organisations and pressure groups.

Some universities, including Cambridge, have research centres for emotional wellbeing based on the disciplines of psychiatry and positive psychology. A fast-growing consultancy business of academic researchers, educational psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and therapeutic and mental health charities (such as the Oxford Parent Infant Project which provides psychotherapeutic help to parents and babies) runs expensive courses in learning to learn, happiness and wellbeing and emotional literacy, carries out emotional audits of schools and workplaces, assesses the emotional literacy of senior management teams and produces text books and materials for teachers and parents.

Challenging the rise of therapeutic education

Our aim is to challenge the state’s sponsorship of therapeutic education. Only be relating this therapeutic trend to wider cultural and political analyses is it possible to explore the ways in which politically-sponsored interventions for emotional wellbeing, and the industry that has grown around them, resonate so strongly with the public and educators alike. Political sponsorship is credible precisely because it uses the language, assumptions and activities of popular therapy, mirrored in the texts and courses promoted by the thriving industry that has grown around therapeutic education.

Our critique is based on some key propositions. First, we do not regard therapeutic education as progressive and benign. Instead, strong images and beliefs about people’s vulnerability and fragility lie behind the rhetoric of empowerment and positive psychology. We need to challenge the obsession with people’s emotional fragility and with what we characterise as ‘the diminished self’, which reflects deeper cultural disillusionment with ideas about human potential, resilience and capacity for autonomy.

Second, we believe that therapeutic education is profoundly anti-educational; whatever good intentions lie behind it, the effect is to abandon the liberating project of education. Therapeutic education creates a curriculum of the self that lowers educational and social aspirations in its quest to be more ‘personally relevant’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘engaging’. This anti-educational trend has two effects. The first is that, in the name of inclusion, tolerance and empathy, a curriculum of the self introduces activities that encourage people to reveal their vulnerable selves to professionals and a growing array of peer mentors, lifecoaches, counsellors, psychologists and therapists employed as ‘therapeutic support workers’. Far from being empowering, this invites people to lower their expectations of themselves and others, and to see others as similarly flawed and vulnerable. The second effect is that these activities and their underlying assumptions are paving the way for coaching ‘appropriate’ emotions as part of developing emotional wellbeing and ‘happiness’.

Our third proposition is that therapeutic education is profoundly dangerous because a diminished image of human potential opens up people’s emotions to assessment by the state and encourages dependence on ritualised forms of emotional support offered by state agencies. Therapeutic education replaces education with the social engineering of emotionally literate citizens who are also coached to experience emotional wellbeing.

Towards a political and educational alternative

Our propositions make it important to clarify our own political and educational position. The loose and unthinking application of old labels such as ‘left’, ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’, and the newly coined notions of ‘social justice’ and inclusion, have all become mantras and no longer mean very much in relation to educational or political ideals. This problem is particularly evident in our attempts to challenge the rise of a therapeutic turn in education which lead routinely to accusations that we are ‘right wing’ and ‘elitist’ and therefore ‘uncaring’, ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘not confronting our own emotional issues’. These emotive, simplistic and inaccurate criticisms make the task of articulating a clear educational position both novel and difficult.

We recognise that, even if we are right in our thesis that the rise of therapeutic education reflects a powerful and unique change that goes beyond most historical forms of social engineering, it is still an unfolding process with implications that are far from clear-cut. Nevertheless, parents, teachers, trainee teachers, teacher educators, policymakers, advisers, inspectors, students and the promoters of therapeutic education should seriously consider the consequence of this change in education. We particularly invite parents to question interventions in the name of emotional wellbeing currently being imposed on their children.

We invite those who agree that our concerns are legitimate to consider how to resist the trends we identify. We write this with the aim of starting a battle of ideas about what education means in the twenty-first century.

Kathryn Ecclestone is professor of post-compulsory education and Dennis Hayes is a visiting professor in the Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University, England. The above is extracted from their new book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Routledge (London and New York), Frank Furedi, 2004, p.17

(2) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Routledge (London and New York), Frank Furedi, 2004, p.110

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