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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Roe

How can schools give learners a belief that they can thrive in life - a sense of personal agency?

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

A review of ‘Thrive: The purpose of schools in a changing world’ by Valerie Hannon and Amelia Peterson (2021 Cambridge University Press)

Earlier this year I came across this title on Amazon, specifically because I searched for publications that could help me gain clarity around the challenges currently facing young people and how schools can help learners not only survive them, but to thrive in the process. In the middle of the biggest crisis ever faced in education I liked this positivity.

The book sets out four scales of challenge facing this generation, giving a chapter to each in which 2 key learning objectives are suggested. These diagnostic chapters are then followed up with a chapter on school pathfinder case studies. I immediately resonated with the 4 challenges and have worked with colleagues, and now learners, to map out our strategic responses to them.

Challenge scale 1 - Global

We are all concerned about the future of the planet, and for many learners it’s an active source of worry on a daily basis. Hannon and Peterson highlight the fact that the generation of learners currently in school will face the consequences of the climate crisis - this won’t be a theoretical threat for them, schools need to prepare learners for this by giving them the knowledge they need to understand the crisis and feel empowered to take action? This is something we have to achieve. My take on this as an educator in England is that the National Curriculum is way too light on this issue (and conversely too heavy on others) and Lord Jim Knight’s Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill currently entering its Lord’s committee stage would go a long way to redressing the balance by making the teaching of issues of sustainability mandatory on all schools … that’s right they aren’t at the moment. Our immediate response was to set up a Thrive Think Tank on this issue run via School Councils with learner representation right at the heart of helping our trust rethink our pathway to carbon neutrality 2030.

Challenge scale 2 - Societal

The authors detail the twin challenges facing our communal life from the erosion of democracy (are we increasingly likely to vote for personalities rather than policies?), and the way the technology is changing the world of work through the rise of the algorithm, artificial intelligence and robotics. ‘Technologies are creating a labour market in which there are no certainties, but in which the destruction of substantial numbers of existing jobs is a high probability, and in which many that replace them will demand a higher level of technological literacy.’ Projections indicate that ‘44 percent of workers with low education will be at risk of losing out to automation by the mid-2030s’ (PwC, ‘Will Robots Really Steal Our Jobs? An International Analysis of the Potential Long-TErm Impact of Automation’). This is a huge challenge for schools. To prepare learners for this changed landscape they will need the highest possible level of education, especially in STEAM, and the flexibility of character to adapt to a number of career changes over their lifetime as technology evolves.

The second societal challenge is the one that rises from the erosion of trust in the democratic process typified by the ‘fake news’ agenda and the rise of populism. There is growing evidence that such views are increasingly held by young people who are the group most likely to receive their ‘news’ entirely through social media routes. This is leading to a lack of participation in democratic processes. ‘Despite claims of a ‘youthquake’ in the 2017 election, turnout among this age group in 2015, 2017 and 2019 was under 50 per cent, and the lowest of all age groups.’ (House of Commons Library, ‘General Election 2019’).

Part of our response has been to to reboot our school council engagement by ensuring that meetings are purposeful and result in tangible change for young people. We are doing this by sharing key areas of responsibility with learners as we engage with Eco Schools and the International learner Council - both of which help us address planetary issues.

Challenge scale 3 - Interpersonal

This chapter enables an analysis of the impact of technology and social media in a world where tech is always on and there is the 24/7 temptation to compare ones self with ones ‘followers’ and ‘friends’. Currently in the UK the enabling role of social media in online sexual harassment is being keenly felt, as highlighted by the campaigning of Everyone’s Invited. Interpersonal relationships, as they are mediated by social media, are under intense pressure. The tidal wave of porn that has been unleashed on young people in recent years has resulted in ‘40 per cent of boys in England aged 14-17 regularly watch pronography; and one in five harbour extremely negative attitudes towards women’ (NSPCC, ‘40% of Teenage Girls Pressured into Having Sex’; Rallings, ‘Youth and the Internet: A Guide for Policy Makers’).

Relationships are also under pressure across the generations. ‘Globally, life expectancy at birth is projected to rise from 71 years … to 77 years in 2045-2050 and to 83 years in 2095-2100’ (UNDESA, The World Population Prospects’). In addition the number of centenarians will increase eight-fold. As a result people are ‘working longer, digging into their equity and pension pots to support an active lifestyle’. These changes will impact on young people as they interact in an increasingly ageing society.

Our initial response has been to launch a trustwide listening project aiming to enable us to have a clear view of how girls and boys view their relationships and talking with them about how our schools can better manage their concerns when they raise them. Feedback from learners has led us to deliver whole school CPD to staff, install CCTV in stairwells and review some aspects of uniform. Crucially we are also engaging in making sure each school is ‘White Ribbon’ accredited.

Challenge scale 4 - Intrapersonal

The contemporary mental health challenge that partly results from the first 3 challenges, and which has been compounded by the COVID experience, is given analysis. The impact of high stakes exams and tests is given - but not nearly enough, assumptions are hinted at but not thoroughly examined. The lack of ‘silence’ that comes through an ‘always on’ approach to tech and social media is challenged. Whilst connectivity brings benefits that are to be celebrated, there is a downside, ‘It curtails the space for silence, reflection; that process of ‘getting in touch with oneself’. The challenge is given for schools to give routes into the benefit of quiet self reflection. The irony that there are myriad apps for this is not lost. A significant way forward is for schools to ensure that learners have access to opportunities to be creative - to gain the understanding that they are active creators, not simply passive consumers.

Alongside mental wellbeing the authors also stress the need for us to enable learners to take personal responsibility for their physical wellbeing. ‘Each of us has at least one major life project: to ensure a thriving healthy body and mind, upon which all else depends.

The authors’ conclusion is that we are facing a threat to our own sense of personal identity and that schools need to find ways of enabling learners to develop the sense that they can take ownership and responsibility for their own mental and physical and mental wellbeing.

Our initial response has been to ensure that well resourced PHSCE programmes are delivered in each school, giving learners the opportunity to examine the many pressures and challenges of living in a highly technologised world. Later this year this will be augmented by developmental work around character formation leading to a trustwide approach from September 2022.

Agency: A key outcome for learners

For me this was the most impactful section of the book. It begins by suggesting that most school and curriculum models neglect or marginalise the learning goals that young people are crying out for (see table below). This marginalisation can be compounded where schools don't actively listen to their learner’s or involve them in solution making. This adds up to a lack of a sense of agency, of self determination, and results in the belief that life is something that happens rather than something to be made to happen.

The challenge here is for all educators to engage with learners and to partner with them in finding solutions. Such an approach would have the dual benefits of tackling direct problems whilst also developing a sense of personal agency along the way.

For learners in Thrive, we need to say that Agency needs to be more than a key outcome, rather the key outcome. We are starting out on this journey by ensuring that this year each school has a) a highly effective school council, b) real involvement in school improvement planning (starting with Eco Schools) and c) highly responsive feedback loops to capture as many learners as is possible.


Key learning objectives suggested by the authors


  • To live sustainably within the earth’s resources, protecting its ecosystem and biodiversity.

  • To acquire global competence.


  • To equip learners to navigate a disrupted and uncertain landscape of work.

  • To prepare young people to reinvent a democracy that is participative, authentic and meaningful.


  • To develop loving and respectful relationships in diverse, technologised societies.

  • To engage with, and learn from, other generations.


  • Attain a secure sense of self and identity, with sources of personal nourishment and renewal.

  • Learn responsibility for physical health, fitness and wellbeing.

Thrive: The purpose of schools in a changing world by Valerie Hannon and Amelia Peterson (2021 Cambridge University Press)


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