Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

'Mindfulness' classes considered

David Laws said the Department of Education was "very interested" in promoting classes in "mindfulness"

Ministers are looking at whether schoolchildren could benefit from classes in "mindfulness", David Laws has said.

The schools minister said that the topic should be taken seriously, although there needed to be careful scrutiny of the evidence of its effects.

His comments came days after a leading private school headmaster suggested that a ll schools should make time each day for pupils to ''be quiet and reflect''.

Giving over of the timetable to a ''daily stillness period'' would help youngsters learn how to concentrate and help prevent mental health issues like anxiety and depression, according to Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, a private school in Berkshire.

A number of schools, particularly those in the private sector, are introducing or looking at "mindfulness" classes, which usually focus on teaching students meditation and breathing techniques as well as how to pay attention to the present moment.

During a Commons education select committee hearing on child wellbeing, Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, asked Mr Laws: "What part do courses in mindfulness play in raising child wellbeing, does the Department for Education plan to promote such courses?"

In reply, the minister said: "I think we are very interested in promoting this and we certainly think that it's an area that merits consideration based on the evidence we've seen to date.

"My colleague (education minister) Liz Truss actually has been looking at this recently."

Mr Laws was then asked by committee chairman Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, to explain the concept of mindfulness.

He told the cross-party group of MPs: "It's about trying to impact on people's motivations, their attitudes to life, it's about trying to get at some of the things we don't always get at through our crude technical interventions and I think it's an area that we should take seriously while making sure that there is proper evidence-based scrutiny of it."

Last week, Dr Seldon suggested that young people today were subjected to increasingly frantic pressure and needed to learn techniques that would help them cope with stress.

Speaking ahead of an international conference for schools on the issue, he said: ''With the decline in religious assemblies, the chance to be quiet and reflect during the school day is being lost, at a time when it is needed more than ever as young people experience increasingly frantic pressure in their lives.

''Mindfulness or meditation has been shown to be an invaluable tool to help bolster young people's resilience to psychological stress," he added.

''It also boosts concentration, depth of thought, happiness and achievement.

"It is the most simple and natural technique to learn - indeed it is not really a technique at all.

"It is all about being yourself, making the most of yourself, and making the most of the opportunities that life presents to you."

Pupils at Wellington College often take part in a two-minute stillness period during assemblies taken by Dr Seldon, while teenagers in Years 9 and 10 have a timetabled weekly ''mindfulness session''.

In a wide-ranging evidence session, Mr Laws was also asked for his views on child poverty and whether he was in favour of targets to eliminate it.

The minister replied that he was in favour of targets, although he added that these need to be "sensible and credible".

"I think that we have had, in the past couple of decades, unacceptably high levels of child poverty in this country. I think we should still be aiming to do a lot better and the Government remains committed to the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010."

Mr Laws went on to indicate that child poverty reforms are likely to feature in political parties' manifestos for next year's general election, after a recent announcement on the Government's proposed child poverty strategy attracted criticism.

The document, published last month, saw proposals to rewrite the official definition of child poverty put on the backburner.

The strategy, which was released for consultation by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, restated the Government's commitment to end child poverty by 2020 and promised to "tackle poverty at its source", but contained no new policy proposals to help the poorest families.

After reportedly clashing with George Osborne over his heavily-trailed plans to rewrite the definition of poverty to include factors like educational opportunity, worklessness and parental addiction, Mr Duncan Smith agreed to put the idea on hold, saying in a joint article with the Chancellor that "this is such an important issue - it is vitally important that we take the time to get it right".

Mr Laws was asked at the evidence session about a quote in which he was reported as accusing the Conservatives of vetoing improvements in the definition of child poverty.

The minister replied: "I was very disappointed that we didn't get to a cross-government agreement on this. We worked as child poverty ministers very hard for a long period of time. We did a lot of work looking at existing measures of child poverty, about new measures that would focus particularly on tackling the root causes of it.

"I think it would have been very positive if we could have come as a coalition to an agreement that both parties could have bought into. That wasn't possible, as has been announced recently, and I think the different parties will now have to take forward this agenda in their election manifestos and make decisions in the next parliament."

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