GCSE Wellbeing.

A Manifesto for Brilliant Schools and Brighter Futures.

"Empowering young people to take charge of their own mental health"

Discussion Document

Compiled by:

  • Dr Andy Cope (author, trainer & wellbeing expert)
  • Paul Field (educational consultant & former head teacher)
  • Will Hussey (author & teacher)
  • Nikki Ayles (MAPP & resilience expert)
  • Darrell Woodman (MAPP, author & trainer)

The Vision

The UK education system to be held up as a model of global best practice in producing young people who are outstanding citizens in areas of:

  • World class qualifications
  • Flourishing mental health
  • Workplace readiness
  • Community mindedness

Specifically, the UK to be rated as a global leader (#1 ranking) in the following areas:

  1. Post 14 qualifications
  2. Happiness, positivity and other measures of ‘mental wealth’
  3. An education system that produces young people who are capable of flourishing in a dynamic and fast-paced business world
  4. An education system that produces young people who are actively contributing to flourishing communities
  5. An education system that produces a throughput of young people who are lifelong learners, with growth mindsets, resilience and creativity to match their academic excellence
  6. A school system that creates young people who are proud of their achievements and who are enabled to live happy lives
  7. Young people who, in due course, create flourishing families of their own
  8. Producing young people are able to take charge of their own mental wellbeing, with knowledge and strategies that enable them to bounce back from setbacks

The Current State of Play

For some, education is a joy. For an increasing number, school can be a source of competitive pressures and a hot house of stress.

Despite the hard work and unceasing effort, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) places UK teenagers in an ironic position of ‘could do better’, ranking15th in science, 27th in maths and 21st in reading.

National statistics tell us that teachers are leaving the profession and pupils’ happiness is on the decline. UK teenagers rank 19th out of 20 in a recent international study of wellbeing. Mental ill-health is a particular problem for girls with 1 in 4 being clinically depressed by age 14 and hospital admissions for teenage self-harm rising by 68% in the last decade.

In a valiant effort to keep up, many schools have fallen into the trap of doing the same, but harder. Cue more low-level disruption, burnout, anxiety, absence and mental ill-health, with over half of all school exclusions linked to mental health issues.

The national curriculum states that ‘all schools should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education, drawing on good practice'. Therefore, ‘PSHE’, as a ‘subject’ exists as a form of wellbeing education that contributes to schools' statutory duties. In the headlong rush for grades, very few schools take PSHE seriously and it is often taught by form tutors (if at all) on an ad hoc basis.

Many heads and teachers acknowledge a growing wellbeing problem and are doing the best they can. However, individual school attempts at boosting wellbeing can best be described as piecemeal. Many schools are facilitating sessions on growth mind-sets, mindfulness, meditation, or they might have a ‘chill-out’ room where angry/anxious/stressed teenagers can relax. Nowadays, the old-style school nurse is a counsellor and/or therapist.

All these interventions mean well. Some are tremendously useful but overall the fact remains that maths, English and science are core pursuits, with wellbeing a peripheral or non-existent activity.

The current hit and miss approach views pupil wellbeing as a safety net. Schools are very good at providing counselling, therapies, interventions and support for those who fall. Indeed, there’s another £1.4b being pumped into the system to widen the net.

Dealing with mental ill-health has become a booming industry. The bigger net means the NHS and school mental health professionals can now catch the increasing number of those who are falling.

The system is creaking. Indeed, in terms of harming the mental wellbeing of young people, the system is often failing. Below, we outline a new approach that nurturers a culture of wellbeing, happiness and self-improvement in which the whole school community can flourish.

The Wellbeing Solution

The real solution is not to fix those who have been mentally and emotionally harmed by the education system and/or modern world. The challenge is to create an environment in which young people can flourish. The questions therefore become; how can we move wellbeing from the edge to the centre? And how can we stop young people becoming mentally unwell in the first place?

The answer is surprisingly simple. GSCE Wellbeing.

If we want schools to produce well qualified young people who also happen to be confident, upbeat, positive, resilient, creative, altruistic and passionate, they need to be taught how. In short, young people need a programme of study that equips them for the fast-paced world as it is, not the relatively pedestrian world as it used to be.

The proposed GCSE Wellbeing prototype has 7 taught modules, each with ‘homework’ that builds into a portfolio of personal growth. The young people will document their own progress, charting their strengths, growth, ambitions, purpose, goals, successes and character traits.

The GCSE will cover the theory of wellbeing, whilst recognising its subjective nature. Thus, the significant academic underpinning will be combined with an emphasis on learning a variety of techniques - hence young people will get to try out mindfulness, anchoring, altruism, reframing, gratitude, etc, to see what works for them.

The golden thread throughout all modules is young people aspiring to be their best selves.

World Leading

Mental ill-health among teenagers is not exclusively a UK problem. Most modern economies are grappling with similar problems caused by a school system that is failing to keep pace with the demands of modern life. Thus, GCSE Wellbeing is the first step in a global wellbeing revolution, and the subject will eventually sit alongside maths, science and English as a core curriculum subject.

Its DNA is rooted in the modern world. GCSE Wellbeing is designed to inspire and educate, as well as equipping young people with a set of life-skills.

GCSE Wellbeing is a subject in which young people will learn strategies to maintain their own mental wellbeing. It is a subject that will genuinely change lives. Moreover, it is the only curriculum subject that will impact positively on school grades across the board because evidence tells us that happy children learn and behave better.

Best of all, GCSE Wellbeing will give employers what they need and parents what they crave – a flourishing next generation who are able to cope with the full-on nature of modern life.

What Price Happiness?

The current system of ‘waiting for young people to show signs of metal ill-health and then fixing them’ is, at best, an inordinately expensive and inhumane way of addressing the problem. But we continue because of the moral argument; if intervention can save just one child then it is deemed worthwhile.

Our morality needs channelling in another direction. Young people don’t need saving or fixing. They need empowering and equipping. Empowering generations of young people to take charge of their own mental health, equipping them to live flourishing lives that contribute to happy communities is worth £billions to the economy.

Factor in the savings to the NHS and public sector and it amounts to £trillions.

But, of course, it’s much bigger than that. Happiness is the number one thing that parents want for their children. True happiness, mental wealth and the ability to live a flourishing life is something money can’t buy.

Module Titles

  • Personal leadership (aka ‘being your best self’)
  • The Science of Wellbeing (aka ‘the search for happiness’)
  • Communicating Positively with Others (aka ‘how to win friends and influence people’)
  • Dealing with difficult times (aka ‘bouncebackability’)
  • Spirituality (aka ‘feeling connected’)
  • Physical wellbeing (aka ‘eat. move. sleep’)
  • Personal change (aka ‘making a difference’)

Module 1: Personal Leadership (aka 'Being your best self')

In a Nutshell:

The syllabus icebreaker, giving teenagers a great opportunity to assess who they are, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there. Focussing on the elements of Emotional Intelligence regarding ‘self’, this module looks at the journey from self-regard, through self-awareness to self-management. The question explored is, “What can you do to translate what you feel and know about yourself to create the best outcome for you?”

Theme(s) Additional information

Who am I? Who am I at my best? What are my positive attributes, talents, skills and qualities?


What do I stand for/what are my values?

  • Understand what makes me, me. Personal strengths and positive qualities, my values, and who I am at my best.
  • Wheel of life, adapted to be age appropriate, to include personal assessment of relationships, health, happiness, confidence, effort, family, etc.
  • The route to enhance personal behaviour by tapping into strengths, beliefs and values.
  • Johari Window exercise (how I see myself versus how others see me)

What/who has formed my character?


  • Narrative of the teenager’s story so far. Story to include highlights, lowlights and personal learning to date.
  • Concept of a personal script (Wilkins)
  • The concept of 7 stories. Rewriting your story. Creating a best-seller.

Character and personality

  • Personality types, Jung (sensing, intuition, thinking, feeling), extrovert/introvert, Myers Briggs, character traits.
  • Personal compass. Living by personal values versus expectations of others.

Personal strengths

  • Personal strengths inventory, signature strengths (Buckingham). Why do I like doing certain things and how can I change my outcome by doing more or less?
  • Habits (what have I got that I want to keep, what have I got that I don’t want?)
  • Core competencies and how to maximize them.
  • Understanding weaknesses and what I should do to make sure that my weaknesses does not affect my chosen outcome.


  • Comfort zones.
  • Reality is constructed (Kant)
  • Limiting beliefs (understanding of and breaking away from)

Goal setting

  • Goals as a means of achieving higher effort and greater persistency (Locke & Latham)
  • SMART.
  • HUGGs (Huge Unbelievably Great Goals), Everest goals (Cameron)
  • ‘Towards’ v ‘away from’.

Learning styles

  • Levels of learning (Kolb)
  • How we learn. Learning styles (Honey & Mumford). Towards ‘unconscious competence’.
  • VAK.
  • (Student has the chance to assess their own styles and comment on them)

Modern teenagers

  • The roleless role? (Parsons)
  • The snowflake generation? (Sinek)
  • Examples and role models in society. Modelling excellence. Looking up to exceptional people or looking into them? (Hyner)

Module 2: The Science of Wellbeing (aka ‘the search for happiness’)

In a Nutshell:

A module that tracks the science of wellbeing from ancient to modern, focusing on a range of contemporary concepts that make up positive psychology. Exploration of world happiness league tables and a discussion about modern day impediments to happiness, including social media and the role of money as a source of happiness.

Theme(s) Additional information

Wellbeing: An historical perspective


  • Ancient Greeks (Aristotle, Plato)
  • Hedonism v eudaimonia
  • Stoics
  • The Enlightenment
  • Work and happiness through the ages
  • Wellbeing in contemporary society (flourishing individuals, communities and organisations, Seligman)

Contemporary concepts of wellbeing

  • Positive Psychology (Seligman, Deiner, etc)
  • Broaden & Build (Fredrickson)
  • Positive thinking (e.g., ‘The Secret’ and similar)
  • Flow (Csikszentmihalyi)
  • PERMA (Seligman)
  • Set point theory
  • Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider; to include an AI study of ‘what’s working really well in your school and/or community?’)

Philosophical perspectives on happiness & wellbeing

  • What is happiness and how is it best achieved?
  • The benefits of happiness and wellbeing (health, relationships, job prospects, longevity, quality of life, etc)
  • Utopia (Thomas More)
  • East and West (very broadly, searching for happiness in the moment or in materialism)
  • The greatest happiness principle (‘utilitarianism’, Bentham)
  • Application of the above to the modern world. For example, how well have we organised society in order to achieve maximum happiness for the most people? How could we do it better?

Happiness: Nature or Nurture?

  • Lyubomirsky’s model of 50% genetics, 10% circumstances, 40% intentional strategies
  • The happiness set-point

Happiness in the modern world: impediments and accelerators


  • ‘Busyness’
  • Social media and comparison
  • ‘Affluenza’ (James)
  • News consumption (Gitomer)
  • Relationships & community as core accelerators of wellbeing

Money and happiness

  • Money as a source of happiness
  • ‘Retail therapy’
  • Hedonic treadmill, adaptation
  • The Easterlin Effect
  • How to maximize your happiness £

World Happiness

  • World Happiness Report, what can we learn from the world’s happiest and least happy countries?

Module 3: Communicating Positively with Others (aka ‘how to win friends and influence people’)

In a Nutshell:

This module examines the principles of good communication, with a view to creating a positive impact on self and others. It introduces a series of techniques taken from Neuro Linguistic Programming that give participants a range of ways to enhance how they create the world around them.

Theme(s) Additional information

Relationship mapping

  • Students to produce a web of their relationships (parents, teachers, friends, relatives, neighbours)
  • Understanding your impact

Emotional contagion

  • Flourishing, ‘limbic locking’ (Goleman), emotional resonance and dissonance
  • ‘2%ers’ and ‘mood hoovers’. Attitudinal choice and effort. Happiness as a ‘portable benefit’ (Cope)
  • The emotional ripple effect (Cristakis & Fowler), 3 degrees of separation
  • Social intelligence (Goleman)

Flourishing communities

  • Altruism & good deeds (random acts of kindness)
  • Good citizenship
  • Volunteering (volunteers’ high)

Emotional Intelligence

  • Multiple intelligencies (Gardiner), especially intra & inter personal intelligence (understanding self)
  • Attachment theory
  • Listening skills

Understanding other people’s perspective

  • Language patterns
  • Valuing diversity
  • Connecting positively with others 
  • Understanding the mind - the role of the conscious and unconscious mind 
  • Explanation of representational system and how it relates to how humans think 
  • How to spot others representational systems and the implications for positive communication 
  • Human communication model (including body language)
  • Information deletion, distortion & generalisation (creating maps of the world)
  • Creating rapport
  • Asking great questions

Difficult people and relationships

  • Seeing the world from another person’s perspective (meta mirroring)
  • Dealing with criticism and negative feedback
  • Introduction to inside-out thinking (Banks)
  • No failure only feedback
  • Letting go (Sedona method, or similar)

Positive communication

  • Losada line (3:1 positives)
  • First impressions
  • Compliments, speaking well of others (including spontaneous trait transference
  • 4-minute rule (McDermott)
  • The heliotropic effect (inspiring others by first being inspired)

Module 4: Dealing with Difficult Times (aka ‘bouncebackability’)

In a Nutshell:

This module comes from the real world inevitability of having to cope with adversity. Students will learn about the background of ‘hope’ and its similarities within the widespread research around optimistic styles within positive psychology. Students will learn about self-talk, reframing as well as experimenting with various techniques that will enable them to cope in difficult times.

Theme(s) Additional information

The inevitability of adversity

  • Learning from setbacks, bouncing forward (Achor)
  • PTSD or post-traumatic growth; examples of both
  • Explanatory styles

Natural human resilience

  • ‘Ordinary magic’ – the natural emotional recovery system (Masten)
  • Grit (Duckworth)

Staying calm under pressure.


  • Understand stress and how it helps and hinders me
  • The stress curve: eustress and distress
  • Personal stressors? Which are real and which created myself? The dangers of rumination
  • Managing my personal stressors. Calming techniques & thinking techniques

Techniques for developing resilience

  • Anchoring techniques. Understanding different anchoring and how to set a positive resource anchor - be able to demonstrate how to set an anchor 
  • SUMO questions (McGee)
  • Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (rethinking how you think)
  • Dealing with difficult times. It’s okay not to feel okay
  • Understanding different states and how to manage your state 

Hope Theory

  • Optimism – is it always a good thing?
  • Optimistic Models: Explanatory and Dispositional.  Both will be explored and how they relate to coping, motivation and well-being. 
  • Hope theory (and how it differs to optimism)
  • Links with and introduction to goal theory


  • Self-talk and other elements of self-performance – ways in which individuals can affect their emotional state by running different scripts and dialog.
  • The impact of toxic words on outcomes
  • The inner chimp (Peters)
  • System 1 & 2 (Kahneman)
  • Explanatory styles


  • Gratitude studies (Emmons)
  • 3 good things
  • Gratitude journal

Letting go

  • 7 habits of highly effective people, circle of influence and concern, controlling the controllables, 90/10 principle (all Covey)
  • 3 Cs to change your thoughts: catch it, challenge it, change it

Module 5: Spirituality (aka ‘feeling connected’)

In a Nutshell:

To understand that human beings need to feel connected, both to self and others. To learn about purpose and to share some principles of mindfulness and connectivity from around the world. Note, this module touches on religion but is not about religion. Rather it is about connectedness and higher purpose in the widest sense of the terms.

Theme(s) Additional information

Attachment theory

  • Secure attachments, including attachment with oneself

Religion and wellbeing

  • Exploration of the links between faith and happiness

Living on purpose

  • Meaning, Japanese ‘ikigai’, purpose
  • Sinek’s golden circles
  • What’s your sentence? (Pink)


  • The power of now (Tolle). Being here now (from ‘reacting’ to ‘responding’)
  • Mindfulness, meditation, the nature of thought, the awareness of being aware
  • Relaxation techniques. Paying attention. Calming busy minds
  • Recognizing worry (noticing how your mind plays tricks on you)
  • Taking in the good. Rewiring away from negativity bias

Wellbeing from other cultures and nations

  • Some or all of: Hygge (‘coziness’; Denmark), Lagom (‘enoughness’; Sweden), longevity and a life well lived (examples from Okinawa & Sardinia), Elan vital (France; life force), Ubuntu (Southern Africa; humanity towards others), Whakapapa (Maori; leaving a positive mark on the world)

Module 6: Physical Wellbeing (aka ‘Eat. Move. Sleep.’)

In a Nutshell:

Modern life can mean that we’re a lot less active, eat more than we should and don’t recharge our batteries. With so many opportunities to watch TV or play computer games, and with so much convenience and fast food available, we don't move about as much, or eat as well as we might. This module is a reminder that revisits some back-to-basics of nutrition, exercise and sleep hygiene.

Theme(s) Additional information

Analysis of individual diet, exercise, sleep and mood

  • Students rate their own diet, exercise, sleep and mood to form a starting point

The modern world – how it contributes to healthy v unhealthy lifestyles

  • The changing nature of work, screen time, fast food, ‘informnia’

Fuelling the body

  • Use the ‘Eatwell guide’ to explain the principles of healthy eating
  • Identify why people may find it hard to follow this
  • 8 tips for healthy diet (or Jamie Oliver’s 10 tips)
  • Analyse their own diets students could use the ‘food a fact of life nutrition calculator’
  • Plan and suggest improvements to their diets…. e.g., eat breakfast, plan healthy snacks, eat the rainbow, eat healthier alternatives, eat a balance of nutrients, make your own food, etc

Movement. Body maintenance

  • Identify different forms of exercise
  • Why is exercise good for us…develops coordination, strengthens body, social interaction, improves attention, maintains a healthy weight, helps you to sleep better, improves mood
  • How much exercise should we be aiming for a day/week?
  • Identify areas for improvement and implement a plan

Re-charge and replenish

  • Sleep hygiene
  • Why is sleep important?
  • What prevents us having enough sleep?
  • What could be done to develop a healthy sleep routine?
  • Evaluate own sleep routine
  • Identify areas for improvement and implement a plan

Personal responsibility

  • Self-efficacy, locus of control, extrinsic v intrinsic motivation
  • Future basing. Time line (i.e., project lives into the future using good and bad diet, exercise and sleep)

Human energy

  • Physical, emotional, psychological & relational (Cameron)

Students to produce their own targets for improvement over a series of weeks to then do another review of their mood after following the routine.

Module 7: Personal Change (aka ‘making a difference’)

In a Nutshell:

Pitching very much at the modern end of the wellbeing spectrum, students will learn about the origins of Growth Mindset theory, and significant contributors to its continuing development. This module explores the concept of failure and its inevitability in learning, before turning to neurology and the new science of epigenetics, in which young people learn that positivity is not just a nice feeling, it also causes a re-wiring of neural pathways.

Theme(s) Additional information

Learning styles

How we learn - includes supposition ‘Possible in the world, possible for me’

Growth mindset (GM)

  • Fixed versus Growth Mindset thinking (Dweck).
  • Fixed thinking created by inhibiting beliefs acquired through others (parents, friends, teachers etc.) and wider society.
  • Fixed thinking as a subconscious meta programme that acts as a potent limiting factor.
  • Growth Mindset thinking – examination of various case studies to counter commonly-held myths (the perceived proliferation of Kenyan distance runners and Jamaican sprinters for example.)
  • Mindset motivation: explore the contrasting intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that typifies differing mindsets
  • The language of mindset; praise for effort or attainment?

The structure and neurology of learning


  • The Failure Paradox. Examining attitudes towards ‘failure’ in society; our complex relationship with, and the value of embracing associated feedback for progress to be made.
  • Counter the notion of ‘overnight success,’ and explore case studies of outstanding individuals in fields of sport, music, engineering, for example, to gauge the symbiotic relationship between success and failure
  • ‘Giving up’ as a way of achieving your goals (i.e., goal setting is important but what are you willing to give up to achieve your dreams?)
  • ‘Confirmation Bias’ as a symptom of fixed-mindset thinking
  • The importance of iteration. Major advancements are more often made incrementally through trial-and-error procedures, rather than sole scientific designation.

How the young mind develops


  • Basic epigenetics (genes are fixed but their sequencing is not, therefore you create you)
  • Neuroplasticity and unlimited potential
  • Back to front brain development. From parent centred to peer centred. Fitting in. Why we feel peer pressure

‘Life crafting’


  • Creating an amazing life rather than settling for an average one

The 3 Principles (Banks)

  • Inside-out thinking. Mind, thought and consciousness. Modern exponents of Bank’s work (e.g., Smart & Pransky)

Psychological capital

  • PsyCap (Luthens), the combined long term motivational effects of self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience


GCSE Wellbeing does not seek to be like other qualifications. Indeed, its USP is a uniqueness of content, delivery and assessment.

Each student is assessed on a portfolio of evidence that shows evidence of ‘before’ and ‘after’, i.e., young people are encouraged to reflect on what they’ve learned and to experiment with some of the concepts and techniques. Thus, the assessment is a personal development journey, with each module requiring a reflective review in which students are asked to consider their learning in the round.

For each module, reflective questions will be framed around the themes below:

  1. What have I learnt?
  2. What do I take from this learning?
  3. What do I want to change?
  4. What action do I choose to take from this learning?
  5. What are the steps I will take, by when, and with what support?
  6. Where am I on the happiness/wellbeing scale (having identified where I was at the start of the GCSE)?
  7. How can I use the learning to be a better me?

In addition to the compilation of a personal development portfolio, there will be an appropriately framed assessment that focuses on a community project. The young people will be required to work together to make some sort of positive difference in their community (e.g., random acts of kindness day, raise some money for charity, paint the scout hut, run a happiness day for the local primary school, help out with the local football team, etc) and reflect on their project. They will also be asked to document their progress via a short video or blog, thus building a collection of wellbeing stories. We envisage that the best projects will be entered for a regional and national community wellbeing awards.

Overlap with Other Subjects

GCSE Wellbeing seeks to include a host of modern topics, whilst also drawing on tried and tested principles from areas such as PSHE, citizenship, psychology, food tech, PE and philosophy.

The aim would be to borrow from these subjects rather than usurp them.

Who Would Teach GCSE Wellbeing?

The new GCSE could be taught by a range of specialists. There is no need for the syllabus to be delivered by one teacher and, indeed, there is an argument that the various modules should be taught by a range of people, from the pool of teachers to experts within the schools’ community (such as parents, business people, mindfulness experts, etc)

How do we fit it into an Already Overcrowded Timetable?

It is important to remember that teenage mental ill-health is at an all-time high (and rising), a fact partly attributed to an over-crowded timetable. The question is therefore not only about thinning out, but of building the rest of the curriculum around GCSE Wellbeing. Schools that get this right will benefit from an academic uplift in the other GCSE subjects.

In a shake-up of scheduling we envisage that GCSE Wellbeing is allocated a day per month. Thus years 10 and 11 enjoy a monthly ‘non-timetable’ day that is totally focused on mental health and personal wellbeing. These days would be an appropriate mix of community activities, guest speakers, teacher input, group discussions, etc.

Concluding Comments

This is not an anti-schools document. It is pro everything (education, teachers, mental health, happiness, communities, parenting, GCSEs, exams, young people, UK). It is written from a position of having worked in 300+ British schools, observing, listening and taking a temperature gauge of the day to day realities.

Head teachers will defend their schools. They will be able to explain why they organise things as they do. Most can see, hear and feel a growing problem but are powerless to do anything other than fall in line with what the inspection regime demands – namely, that everyone (teachers and pupils) must work even harder. The long hours culture and ‘exam factory’ feel is not conducive to wellbeing.

Thus, the viscous circle needs to turn towards virtue. There are bigger arguments to be had, about the school system and/or inspection regime. For now, our collective expertise is poured into this discussion document. The introduction of GCSE Wellbeing does not necessitate a massive change in the school system.

We view it as the smallest change that will have the biggest impact.

Compiled with valuable contributions from:

  • James Hilton,
  • Darrell Woodman,
  • Will Hussey,
  • Paddy Cordell,
  • Lisa Higginbottom,
  • Louise Cope,
  • Jonathan Peach,
  • Elizabeth Juffs,
  • Arabella Webster,
  • Nigel Percy,
  • Tony Seymour,
  • Bella Peterson,
  • Martin Burder,
  • Amy Bradley