Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Emotional intelligence

We need to move away from the idea that emotional intelligence is a luxury add-on to the curriculum

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This Easter break marked the passing of another annual round of teacher union conferences. As usual, there was a strong focus on pupil behaviour in schools: discussions included the practice of using bouncers to control behaviour in schools and pupil violence towards teachers. Discipline remains a strong concern across the political spectrum, with politicians from both parties keen to be seen to be tough on poor behaviour in schools. Given these lasting concerns about the ‘crunchy’ issues of behaviour and discipline, what space is there for talking about emotional intelligence in schools?

Emotional intelligence has been an important part of the education agenda in the last few years, with the government rolling out the ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’ (SEAL) programme to help schools develop emotional intelligence in their learners. This programme has been pooh-poohed by some commentators as a waste of time spent on ‘happiness lessons’. Their argument is that schools can’t afford to be focusing on wellbeing when there’s the job of teaching children to read and write to be done.

But this view belies a misunderstanding of what emotional intelligence is about. Emotional intelligence refers to a broad set of social and emotional competences – including self-awareness; empathy; being able to understand and manage your own feelings such as anger, frustration and sadness; motivation and sticking power; and communicating and being able to get along with other people.

Far from a focus on these skills being a distraction, it is the foundation for learning and good behaviour in the classroom. Unless children have these abilities, they are unlikely to be able to fully benefit from school. Far from being a ‘soft’ concern, evidence in recent years has demonstrated that emotional intelligence has an important impact on how children and young people do in life: for people aged 30 in 2000, a child’s inclination to complete a task at age 10 was as important in predicting earnings in adulthood as maths ability.

All very well and good, but traditionalists argue that it is the job of parents, not schools, to develop these traits in young people. Of course, this is true up to a point. Parenting in the early years is key to laying the foundations of emotional intelligence – psychological evidence suggests that warm and authoritative parenting, that combines love with consistent rules and discipline, is the best way to do this. This is why early years parenting programmes that support parents are crucial, and evidence suggests that investment in these early on can reap benefits later.

But schools have a role to play too. Like literacy and numeracy, emotional intelligence develops throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, brain imaging technology has shown that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brains that is responsible for many of the social competencies desirable in adults (for example, the ability to delay gratification and self-regulate behaviour) does not develop until adolescence. As children become older, parental influences tend to wane and the relative influence of school and peers increase.

Educational research suggests that schools can influence the development of emotional intelligence – in particular, school and classroom cultures and the quality of teacher-learner relationships are important. For example, large-scale studies have found links between the ‘emotional quality’ of a classroom as measured by the warmth of teacher-pupil relations, and progress in literacy and numeracy.

In light of this, the government’s SEAL programme, which supports schools in promoting the cultures and learning styles that develop emotional intelligence, is to be welcomed. However, there are two provisos. First, the emotional intelligence agenda has not enjoyed the same status as the standards agenda. While the two should not be in tension in theory –better standards should be built upon emotional intelligence – they sometimes clash in practice, and when they do the pressure is often on schools to focus on short-term strategies to improve performance in SATs.

Second, it can be more difficult for secondary schools to promote emotional intelligence than primary schools. This is because the move is often a marked change of culture from a much smaller school in which pupils are mostly taught by one teacher, to larger, more anonymous institutions, in which they are taught by up to thirteen teachers at once. Survey data suggest a significant decline in the quality of staff-student relationships as children move through secondary school and that students feel they have less autonomy in their learning as they grow older. There are interesting lessons to be learned from schools who have experimented with models such as mixed-age tutor groups and smaller learning communities within larger schools.

So we need to move away from the idea that emotional intelligence is a luxury add-on to the curriculum that can distract from the grittier day-to-day issues schools are responsible for. It is something that schools can’t afford to ignore. But national education policy needs to give schools the space they need to focus on developing emotional intelligence, and acknowledge that it cannot be the responsibility of schools alone.

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Sonia Sodha

is a former adviser to Ed Miliband and writes for Progress in a personal capacity

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