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Mindfulness in Education

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 10 December 2013

Mindfulness is a form of meditation. I first came across meditation in 1987, when I was a schoolteacher. The school was about to be examined and the staff were highly stressed, so the head teacher called in the school nurse and she gave meditation lessons to the whole staff, including the support staff. It worked wonders. I then took the lessons I had learned from meditation to my classroom in a primary school and taught it to children in classes of up to 39. In fact, on occasions, I would use it in front of 300 children in the school assembly. I have maintained my interest over the years. More recently, I came across the mindfulness form of meditation.

I have tabled hundreds of questions on this subject—the Minister herself will have answered some—and the answers are quite disturbing. One stated that 32.3% of 16 to 25-year-olds have one or more psychological conditions. Another, answered last week, on the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, stated that 2% of the population under 16 have severe ADHD and 9% are mild to moderate.

In 1991, there were 7 million prescriptions for antidepressants, but by 2011 that had increased to 49 million—a 500% increase in the use of antidepressants. Studies in the United States show that 8% of children who use games consoles are clinically addicted to them. The World Health Organisation predicts that, by 2030, the biggest health burden on the planet, ahead of cancer and heart disease, will be mental health. Our children are in health crisis.

WH Auden described the age we live in as the age of anxiety. What are the causes of this pressure, anxiety and stress? There are many contenders, advertising being one. Oliver James, the UK journalist and psychologist, maintains that mental health is undermined by advertising. A parliamentary question answered last week stated that a child will, in their 18 years of childhood, look at 180,000 adverts. The purpose of an advert is to make people unhappy with what they have, so that they will buy what is being presented to them.

Other people say that information overload is the problem. When I was growing up we had three TV channels, but now there are 3,000. We also have texts, Facebook, adverts and digital media. Others say it is digital distraction: computers, the iPad and iPod, the iPhone and the iMac, TV, video and games consoles. Taking people away from face-to-face engagements and putting them in front of screens results in two things: first, they do not pick up the verbal cues from conversation and contact with another human; and, secondly, they do not pick up on the non-verbal cues from facial expressions. That is interfering with neural pathways and relaying those neural pathways.

The speed of modern life needs to be considered. We are running ever faster, but we still seem to be in the same place, as the Red Queen said to Alice. We live in a 24/7 society.

Is the problem the testing? We test children at four, seven, 11 and 14 in standard assessment tests, at 16 for their GCSEs, 17 for AS-levels, 18 for A-levels and at 21 for their degree. We are the most tested nation on earth. Is the problem peer pressure, which has amplified? In my day, people had a ring of 10 mates and we compared ourselves to them. If there were fights or a bullying incident, they were forgotten the next day. However, peer pressure is now amplified by the digital media, with Twitter and Facebook.

Some say the problem might be chemicals in the food or pollution. However, whether it is advertising, information overload, digital distraction, testing, peer pressure or chemicals, we have a crisis in attention in this country. Heidegger predicted this in the 1950s, saying that the

“tide of technological revolution”


“so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be...the only way of thinking.”

That would come at the loss of

“meditative thinking”.

There are different ways of thinking. Calculative thinking has over-dominated meditative thinking and is having an adverse effect in our schools. There is a crisis in mental health and education, and a crisis in society.

Educational attainment is key. It is what the Minister will be judged on, with regard to her portfolio, and what her Department and the Government will be judged on. Educational attainment has dipped. In the programme for international student assessment results, last week or the week before, all nations and regions of the UK dipped, some more than others. The PISA tests, which are done at age 15, are one of the key tests, which I have mentioned, the others being GCSE, A-levels, degree and postgraduate. A third of our young people are in crisis.

Educational attainment comes down to attention and focus. If people can pay attention and focus, they can learn. William James, one of America’s foremost philosophers and the father of American psychology, said:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. No one is compos sui—

I think that means “a master of himself”—

“if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.”

Mindfulness could provide the practical instructions for bringing about that excellence in education.

The crisis of attention could be improved by mindfulness. Mindfulness is training in concentration and self-awareness that has been shown to support top performance and good mental health. Mindfulness is a form of mental training that develops sustained attention. Mindfulness training involves cultivating the capacity to attend to whatever is happening in ways that are purposeful and well balanced. It is the ability to be in the present moment, not being chased by our past or worried by our future so that we cannot concentrate on the present.

Mindfulness is about living in the present moment and releasing the mind from the habitual ruminative patterns that lead to worry, depression and burn-out and it enables more intuitive and creative responses to new challenges. Given the centrality of attention in all mental functioning, such training has significant implications for mental and physical health, for self-regulation and for education. These gifts are there for the taking. I do not think these gifts have been fully explored by my Government—the previous Labour Government—or this Government, but they are worthy of investigation.

Mindfulness can bring about excellence—not just in education, but in sport. It is used across the world, for example, by the best sports teams in the Olympics, in basketball, swimming and diving. It is used by the most creative industries the world has ever known, Google and Apple, which provide mindfulness training for their top creatives in America.

Ariana Huffington, of “The Huffington Post”, is a big advocate of mindfulness in business; she calls it the third matrix. She will address Parliament on the subject in May next year. Mindfulness has been used by British companies, such as Transport for London, and by local authorities, including Gwynedd authority in north Wales. It is used by the American military—this is not fluffy nonsense—which has given $159 million to develop mindfulness in the training of its armed forces, because it realises that a soldier who is not aware of the present moment can cause catastrophe, diplomatic incidents and further bloodshed by a reaction instead of a response.

Mindfulness is also being used here in Parliament. There is a mindfulness group of parliamentarians, with 50 Members of Parliament and Lords who have had training in mindfulness—hopefully, another 50 next year. It is being introduced into the Welsh Assembly Government by a Conservative Assembly Member, Darren Millar.

Mindfulness has broad support, broad appeal and broad usage. The roots of mindfulness are in the eastern traditions, but it has been meticulously tested by the rigour of western science over the past 30 years by people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has pioneered mindfulness for the past 40 years. He visited London in March 2013 and spoke to No. 10 advisers about mindfulness, creativity and enterprise. He addressed shadow Ministers for Health and Education. I am pushing that agenda, and I hope that other Labour colleagues and shadow Ministers will be taking up mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn addressed civil servants, and mindfulness is now being introduced for civil servants in the Department of Health. There is also Professor Richard Davidson, who is a top neuroscientist who maps and measures the brain and the impact that stress and depression have on it.

It is not only American researchers and scientists who are exploring mindfulness; a wealth of home-grown scientists are doing so, too. I particularly praise Professor Mark Williams, who is watching the debate from the Public Gallery. In 2004, along with Zindel Segal and John Teasdale, he was the scientist who convinced the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to accept mindfulness in the Department of Health. That decision has brought tremendous benefits to patients and people suffering mental illness. Mark will retire in the next one or two years—he has had more retirements than Frank Sinatra—but, before he fully retires, he wants to pass on the benefits experienced in the Department of Health to the Department for Education. I join him on that crusade.

There are centres of excellence in the UK. At the university of Exeter, Professor Willem Kuyken is developing mindfulness in schools. Bangor university in Wales is the training ground for mindfulness—not just for the whole of the UK, but for the whole of Europe. It has trained 4,000 professionals, 700 of them to master’s degree level. There is also the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at the university of Oxford. Felicia Huppert is a well-being expert at the university of Cambridge. The benefits that accrue from mindfulness include improved attention and focus, and less impulsive and risky behaviour.

I was a teacher for 15 years, and I was the deputy head of a large Catholic primary school with 550 pupils. When I went down to the infants department and asked the teachers the biggest thing that they expected from a child coming in at the age of three or four, they did not say the ability to read, write or do numbers; what they wanted is for that child to be able to sit still, be curious and be willing to learn. To do that, the child needs attention and focus, which mindfulness can supply.

I have some materials for the Minister to look at, including material on the .b programme, which is being implemented in secondary schools across the UK. There is also material on the paws .b programme, which is being introduced in primary schools across the UK and beyond. The programmes have been developed by academics, neuroscientists, practising teachers and psychologists, and they are being piloted as we speak. The .b programme is the most widely used mindfulness curriculum in the UK. The science adopted by NICE for the national health service has been used to inform the debate in the education sector.

I pay tribute to the Prime Minister’s work on well-being. He took some big, bold steps back in 2010 when he instructed the Office for National Statistics to develop a well-being index to measure well-being, including the well-being of children. He has taken a principled stand on advertising to children and the sexualisation of young children through advertising. I pay tribute to the work of the previous Labour Government in introducing social and emotional education. Indeed, the NICE breakthrough in 2004 was under a Labour Government and followed funding by the Wales Office in the 1990s.

The well-being of our children is non-party political; it is one of those issues such as national security and care for the elderly on which we should come together across the political divide, especially when we are faced with a crisis in which every third young person is experiencing poor mental health.

I have a few questions for the Minister, as well as the homework that I am setting her. Will she please consider making mindfulness training available in all teacher training colleges in England? I will be asking the other nations of the UK to do the same in their teacher training institutions. Such a measure would help individual teachers in their personal practice, but, more importantly, a primary school teacher will teach 1,000 children over the course of their 30 or 40-year career. The knowledge that each teacher passes on will help those children for the rest of their life.

Mindfulness is a life skill, and if we can teach it from the age of four to the age of 18, those young people will be well prepared for life. I also ask that mindfulness be made available to the 440,000 teachers who are currently teaching—I think there are an extra 460,000 teaching assistants and ancillary staff. Let them have access to mindfulness training for themselves and for the pupils they look after.

Will the Minister meet the experts I mentioned from the UK’s world-class universities? Perhaps she could be joined by two or three MPs from both sides of the House who are keen to promote mindfulness in education. I thank her for listening.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate. His speech, drawing on his experience as a teacher, was interesting and informative and he highlighted some worrying facts about the mental health of our children and young people. He painted a vivid picture of the age of anxiety in which we live, whether that is as a result of the constant pummelling of modern media such as Twitter and Facebook and advertising, or the sheer pace of modern life that we all experience. He talked about the Red Queen from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and I think many of us often feel like the White Rabbit, rushing around from one thing to another. I recognise the issues he raised and the picture he painted of the way life is now.

The Department for Education certainly agrees that children learn better and achieve more when they are thinking clearly, and the ability to focus on the matter in hand and to ignore potential distractions is an important factor in being able to learn and focus. The hon. Gentleman talked about the ability to sit still, be curious and be willing to learn, which we need at every stage of our education system. I absolutely agree with that.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the number of exams, particularly external exams, that students are sitting. We have moved to a linear course for A-level to remove the necessity for students to sit another exam at 17. We have moved to linear exams for GCSEs, too, because children were taking external exams every term. We want young people to have an opportunity to learn in depth, to think about what they are studying and to enjoy it. Rather than the end always being the exam, the end should be learning in school.

I challenge what the hon. Gentleman said about the PISA results, which varied between the countries of the United Kingdom. Wales did significantly worse than England. England’s results have stagnated over the past 15 years. We do not think that is good, which is why the Government are reforming the education system and considering examples such as Poland and Germany, where results have successfully been improved. I agree with him about the importance of young people being exposed to entrepreneurship in schools, which could help to build character resilience and all the other characteristics we want to see in our young people.

It is worth briefly discussing the new curriculum, which is being introduced in September 2014. It is a lot slimmer than its predecessor, which means more time for teachers to teach in different ways and to introduce concepts such as mindfulness to their students if that is the best way of getting messages across. I like to say that the Government have put the trellises and pathways in the garden, but it is for the teachers to plant the seeds and grow the plants. That is not something we can do from Whitehall.

Students’ mental health and well-being is of course an important part of their learning process in order to ensure that they are doing well. Mindfulness has been used in schools and is often taught in combination with other relaxation and self-management techniques. Some early indications suggest that such approaches can help pupils to control stress and anxiety, pay attention and develop social skills, and can improve teacher-pupil interactions and enhance academic performance. I support the sharing of good practice and ideas that help pupils to achieve more. I also believe that the best way for schools to find out about what works is from the successes of other schools in similar circumstances. I would like to hear from the hon. Gentleman and interested colleagues about positive examples of schools that are using mindfulness and finding it a successful approach.

Would the Minister accept an invitation to see mindfulness in action in a school in her constituency, if one is available, or perhaps here in London?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting proposal, which I will consider along with the meeting request, but I certainly am interested in understanding more about how mindfulness works in practice. I would therefore like to accept the offer.

As I mentioned, we have given schools the freedom to decide which external programmes they use to deliver their curriculum. I am keen to get across the point that, while the curriculum is being implemented by schools over the next six months, they do have the freedom to try new approaches and to do things differently, in a way that they feel is beneficial for their students.

Ofsted has made it clear that it expects schools to look at the whole child, and will focus inspections on outcomes. Together with a slimmed-down curriculum, that gives schools more freedom to add skill and character-building activities, promoting children’s wider well-being. If a school thinks that the mindfulness programme is suitable, it has the ability to make that choice.

Many schools commission their own pastoral and counselling support for their students, and school counselling to support young people is already widespread. A recent survey estimated that between 60% and 85% of English secondary schools provide access to counselling, which equates to between 50,000 and 70,000 sessions a year. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Department of Health, which issued in July 2012 a document entitled, “No health without mental health: implementation framework”, which described the role of schools and FE colleges as understanding the link between emotional well-being and achieving good educational and life outcomes. Teachers are not expected to stand in for mental health professionals, but schools should have a whole-school approach to developing pupils’ well-being and resilience.

I am doing much work with the Department of Health to ensure that our programmes are more joined up in all areas, including schoolchildren’s mental health and our early years programme. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the abilities to sit still, be curious and be willing to learn are often developed at an early age. We need better co-operation between the Department for Education and the Department of Health. Children’s centres, where health and education professionals are on the same site providing guidance to parents and helping young children, work well to help to develop such skills.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned teacher training. Although initial teacher training is important, so is professional development while teachers are in schools. We are keen to see greater professional development and to see head teachers take on more responsibility over time for that development in a school-led system.

I am interested in discussing the matter further with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to see how we can ensure that schools understand the opportunities and the examples of best practice, and how they can fit in to the new national curriculum and the new approach on qualifications.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.