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The Dangerous Rise Of Therapeutic Education: 10 Years On

Updated: Aug 22

Thanks to Henry Kenyon http://henrykenyonphotography.com/


• Dennis Hayes - professor of education, University of Derby; founder and director, Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF); co-author, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education

• David Perks - founder and principal, East London Science School

• Stuart Derbyshire – professor

• Josephine (?) – teacher, standing in for Kathryn Ecclestone

• Louise Burton (Chair) - history teacher

It is now common in schools and universities to find extensive strategies and initiatives to improve ‘well-being’ and mental health. In the words of The Battle Of Ideas introduction to this debate:

a huge industry of life coaches, counsellors, mindfulness facilitators, mental-toughness trainers, bully mediators and nurture groups had taken root across the education system (https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/session/the-dangerous-rise-of-therapeutic-education-10-years-on/).

Following the success of The Dangerous Rise Of Therapeutic Education, Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone celebrated the book’s ten year anniversary at The Battle of Ideas with a debate and cautionary warning about ‘therapeutic education’.

In her absence, Ecclestone’s colleague, Josephine (I missed the surname), delivered Ecclestone’s planned speech by pointing out that Sam Gyimah, Minister for Higher Education, believed that universities’ central purpose was no longer knowledge, but the emotional well-being of students. As well-meaning universities prioritise safe-guarding of students, definitions of mental illness experience ‘concept creep’ where suddenly trivial distress becomes pathologised.

Ecclestone’s co-writer, Dennis Hayes, pointed out that Buckingham University is considering re-naming itself The Happiness University, in an attempt to progress with the times. He also introduced for the first time (certainly to me) the notion of ‘JONK’: the Joy Of Not Knowing, which it seems has entered primary school discourse. Students generally no longer need to know anything providing that their mental and emotional welfare is protected by a supposedly caring education system.

Psychologists, said Hayes, are cashing in: the problem is unlikely to be resolved by experts for whom a sick student represents an income. Professor Stuart Derbyshire might be an expert in Psychology, but he is not qualified ‘to help’ his students emotionally. Ever since universities agonised over how to support students in coping, the rates of depression and anxiety have increased. Within the mental illness strand this turned out to be a core theme: when institutions experience a proliferation of mental illness cases, does this mean that they are succeeding (in ‘outing’ the sick) or failing (in making the problem worse)? In the end, therapy of healthy people could make them ill. Universities are inviting students to be sick.

Headteacher David Perks claimed that the central sickness was not in children, but adults, especially those who criticise other adults for trying to teach students how to cope. He was also concerned at the idea of ‘outsourcing’ the problem and this gave rise to debate about whether some organisations were cynically exploiting the so-called mental illness epidemic. There is a danger, he concluded, that behaviours like self-harm can be normalised by an expectation that this is just what young people do.

Questions for teachers and school leaders

• Does your school have policies in place to react to mental illness or are teachers actively looking for problems in children?

• Does the identification of emotional distress in a school indicate success or failure of a well-being policy?

• Do you pay outside agencies for mental well-being support? How does this represent value for money?

• Which is more important for a school: to be a place of knowledge or a safe space?

• What is more important for a student: to connect with the outside world or connect with their emotional state?

• Do your mental well-being policies mean that you are more or less likely to support a student who is suffering an especially acute crisis?

Questions for tutor time discussion

• As a student, do you expect your school to take responsibility for your emotional well-being?

• Would you like teachers to show more or less concern for your mental well-being?

• In your view, should every school in the UK have a designated, professional counsellor?

• Do you consider it a normal part of life to feel anxious, stressed, depressed or distressed?

• If a university called itself The Happiness University, would it make you want to apply for it?

• Do you believe in JONK: the Joy Of Not Knowing?



Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D. (2008) The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (Routledge: New York)

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