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The Greater Manchester Young People's Wellbeing Programme

Alliance MBS has secured funding to support research into the long-term recovery of local communities from the damage caused by the pandemic.

The wellbeing of our children has been ignored for far too long and it's time to assess it in every school classroom, says Alliance MBS alumnus David Gregson.

By his own admission David Gregson has enjoyed an education second to none. Head boy at the independent Edinburgh Academy, a BA in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, and then on to a highly successful corporate career. He also took his MBA at Alliance MBS from 1981 to 1983.

He might therefore seem a rather unlikely figure to now be advocating a national drive to measure, and ultimately help improve, the wellbeing of today's schoolchildren. But it is precisely because of his own happy upbringing and privilege that today he feels so passionately about young people having access to the life chances that he has enjoyed.

Earlier this year his Gregson Family Foundation published a report arguing for the adoption of an annual student wellbeing assessment in every secondary school in Britain. In making the claim it drew heavily on the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data which not only compared student performance in maths, reading and science across numerous countries, but also asked teenagers about their wellbeing.

The results were stark. British teenagers are among the least satisfied with their lives in the world, coming fourth from bottom of the 79 countries surveyed. Just 35% of UK students described themselves as "always happy". Tellingly, British children had the highest fear of failure of any nation.

Gregson says the findings were something of a light bulb moment for him. "I have always had a passionate interest in education and my overriding feeling when I heard these results was that I wanted to find out why the UK was doing so badly. What were the economic and social reasons for these feelings among our young people? And what can we do to turn this around?"

Dutch experience

Another strong reason for his interest was his own personal experience and the fact that he has lived in the Netherlands with his Dutch-born wife for the last 14 years, a country which also just happens to have among the happiest children in the world.

"As I looked further into the whole subject I realised that as a country the UK just didn't seem to have the machinery to look at wellbeing and say this is really important. And yet the academic literature couldn't be clearer. Time and again the biggest predictor of a happy adult is a happy child. Imagine how much more productive we could be as a society if we tackled this properly? The fact that I live in the Netherlands where wellbeing is fully engrained across society only further motivates me."

So what is driving this malaise among UK schoolchildren? Much of the blame is often laid at the pressures of our exam system and school league tables which put exam attainment front and centre, and Gregson couldn't agree more. "Exam success is so deeply ingrained in our thinking and our education system is far too skewed towards results. For some reason we appear to think that a child with good exam results is a satisfied child later in life, but that doesn't always follow.

"Our vision is to trigger a step change in education such that the system is rebalanced to give greater parity to David Gregson MBA alumnus and Advisory Board member 26 mental health and wellbeing. For instance, we know that less than half of schools in England collect wellbeing data of any kind, without any consistency of criteria. Don't get me wrong, attainment and testing is of course essential. But on its own it is an insufficient benchmark of how our children are doing, and how well we are preparing them for their future lives."

Greater Manchester trial

Schools and education leaders may soon be offered the chance to find out after the campaign for a wellbeing assessment – in a programme to be led by The University of Manchester alongside the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families - recently received a massive boost when Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and politicians from the ten Greater Manchester local authorities endorsed plans to run a pilot in secondary schools across the ten districts.

Gregson says that Greater Manchester is an excellent place to trial the initiative because of its devolved healthcare model, and hopes the trial will be launched in 2021.

"The most important thing is that we show how integrated, holistic data can really help improve the lives of children in terms of showing the challenges they face. Right now we are working on the key metrics which we will be using."

He expects the assessment to corroborate what schools already know. "What I expect is that the socio-economic determinant s of health inequality are actually similar to the wellbeing determinants. That means poverty, parental relationships, peer groups and community relationships, and so on, all play vital roles."

Gregson admits that raising the £1m to finance the pilot, a fundraising effort which he will be overseeing, is tough in the present economic climate given the pandemic. But he believes this can be overcome because of the seriousness of the issue. "Put it this way, why wouldn't anyone want to try to discover more and seek to tackle this problem? If you were in business and had a KPI showing you were one of the worst in the world at something you would pretty quickly want to do something about it."

Covid-19 impact

Gregson says the pandemic has only accentuated growing concerns over the wellbeing of our children. "It has made the rationale for what we are trying to achieve even clearer. At the end of the day this is about building a grand coalition between government, charities and businesses to tackle the problem."

The wellbeing of adult s is of course also under immense threat, a crisis which will inevitably affect children too. "Government has to do whatever is required to support business right now and I think, generally speaking, it has taken the right approach even though we are facing a ballooning of debt levels," he adds. "But the impact on business is utterly immense and we haven't even begun to see the full fallout yet in terms of job cuts."

He concedes that those in more privileged positions such as himself, will also have to pay their share. "When it comes to paying back the cost of Covid-19 we are going to have to take a very hard look at the UK tax regime. Our tax take is currently around 32% of GDP, but in a country such as Denmark it is currently 45%. It is inevitable that that UK percentage will have to rise."

Reimagining the future

But despite the chaos all around us, Gregson says planning for the future has never been more important and that goes for government too.

"The tricky bit in any crisis is how you replace engines in mid-flight and that applies to governments as much as to businesses. For instance, driven by both Covid-19 and Brexit, the dominance of London as a financial centre must at least in part be under threat and we must use our incredible powers of ingenuity to reimagine what financial services will look like while also reducing our dependence as a nation on the sector.

"The very best businesses are good at reimagining the future, they horizon scan and know where they are heading. But reimagining the future of a whole country is a far more difficult exercise. But it's not impossible. Look at New Zealand where every policy in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government is now centred around wellbeing measures and assessments. It shows the art of the possible.

"Whether you are in business or government, forcing yourself to think about what the future will look like can bring with it a breadth of thought that you didn't think you ever had."

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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