Excellence achieved by promoting a healthy balance

Posted on 28th May 2020 in School News, Wellbeing, Which London School?

Sarah Gillam, Head at Maple Walk School and ISI Inspector, considers how to balance academic, sporting and creative success alongside emotional wellbeing.

It is increasingly recognised in mainstream education that there is the need to balance emotional wellbeing with pupils’ success across the curriculum. This is fundamental to ensure that children not only reach their full potential academically but also to become confident, resilient and emotionally intelligent young people with a positive ‘can do’ attitude.

The Independent Inspectorate considers pupil transfer data as part of their judgements about the effectiveness of a school. This means that for Head Teachers of pupils who are involved in any selection process, be it 7+,11+ or indeed older year groups, they face the dilemma of balancing academic, sporting and creative success alongside emotional wellbeing. At a school where many pupils aim to take the 11+, it is therefore an on-going concern to foster pupils’ wellbeing and promote a healthy balance.

It is known that the culture, ethos and environment of a school influence the health and wellbeing of pupils and their readiness to learn. A ‘nurturing’ environment, cited by parents as one of the key benefits of Maple Walk, not only supports the children but the parents too. The caring environment and culture is hugely reassuring for many parents who work full time and rely upon the wraparound care provided. The School’s core common values of kindness, sharing, respect, understanding and trying to be the ‘best you’ in whatever you do, supported by an open door policy for any concerns and issues, small class sizes, a physically smaller school site, a ground source heat pump harnessing energy from the earth and a growing sedum roof to attract wildlife, all contribute to this warm, caring culture. The natural elements help to create a balance within the school’s urban setting.

This environment provides solid foundations on which to build children’s’ confidence and ‘growth mindset’ (namely the belief that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work) when faced with challenges. At Maple Walk, a whole school approach to the development of a positive (growth) mindset is encouraged in all aspects of learning. In addition, the ability to think critically and collaboratively when confronted with difficult problems. It has been proven that there is a complementary relationship between growth mindset and performance. Helping pupils become determined, resilient, committed learners is a key component of flourishing and this, in turn, leads to academic competence and sees children fulfilling their potential.

It is intuitive that effective learning requires energy, engagement, and commitment. The importance of physical exercise is widely recognised as playing a crucial part in boosting wellbeing. It stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin and regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in pupils’ brains; raising levels of serotonin which boosts mood and overall sense of wellbeing. A number of studies identify that the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity pupils engaged with at age eleven can affect future academic performance. One expert, Charles Hillman, Professor at Northeastern University reiterates; “The developing brain in specific regions appears to be particularly amenable to exercise. The development of the prefrontal cortex is involved in our ability to think, reason and commit purposeful action based on thought and not impulse. In everyday life, it is crucial in our ability to lead successful and healthy lives.” Furthermore, studies suggest that childhood exercise has a protective effect on health in later years, as well as improving brainpower – even in inactive grownups!

At Maple Walk we have, as with other schools, thought creatively about the use of space and open areas. Use of the local park, “whatever the weather” and early morning sporting options provide additional opportunities for pupils to engage in physical exercise and demonstrates the value that is placed upon physical activity. Pupils also benefit from experiencing life beyond the school gates as they have access to community spaces.

As the importance of emotional wellbeing becomes more widely recognised within educational settings, schools may have an appointed “emotional well-being champion” whom the children know they can approach and talk to if concerned. Nearly all schools now have a “worry box” which acts as a tool for pupils to share any worries they may have anonymously. Taking this further, Maple Walk has established a drop-in session during lunch break, where pupils are given space to share their concerns with peers?. The emotional and mental health and wellbeing of pupils impacts on their attainment and it is important that children feel that school is a “safe place.”

Ultimately academic success and pupil wellbeing are not mutually exclusive goals and education today is more than a transmission of facts; it is also about helping the individual to reach his maximum potential in every aspect of his life. This is achieved with a balance of opportunities and an academic curriculum delivered using creative and interactive technology and, of course, the human touch.







Academic Benefits of Wellbeing


Maple Walk was judged excellent across all areas by the ISI in March 2020.

This article first appeared in the 2020/21 edition of Which London School? & the South-East, which you can view in full here: