Developing Social and Emotional Skills: Education policy and practice in the UK home nations

This report from the University of Bath examines education policy and provision for social and emotional skills across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Research has consistently demonstrated the importance of social and emotional skills to young people’s short and long-term life outcomes. While successive governments across the UK home nations have directed policy attention to this area, there is a lack of knowledge on differences in policy approaches between the four UK education systems – including points of convergence and divergence between them – and crucially, how school-based provision differs according to the kinds of education policy they are subject to.

This independent report, commissioned by Nesta, seeks to address this gap in knowledge by providing a comparative analysis of secondary education policies on social and emotional skills across the UK, as well as evidence on how schools interpret and respond to these policies. It presents findings from a nationally representative survey of secondary state schools in the UK and qualitative interviews with teachers.

Key findings include:

  • Policy in the four UK home nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) privileges certain social and emotional skills (SES) – which are largely seen as individual ‘competencies’, such as building and managing relationships, resilience, influencing and negotiating skills, taking the initiative, teamwork and leadership abilities, being creative, innovative, flexible and resourceful.
  • There is generally a high level of awareness about social and emotional skills policy across different parts of the UK according to teachers surveyed, but England has the least reported awareness. English schools also reported being less likely to use policies from their jurisdiction and were less likely to say they found them helpful in developing and guiding their provision.
  • Scotland and Wales have developed innovative curricula that take an integrative approach to embedding social and emotional skills within their statutory curricula – whereas England and Northern Ireland rely more on a disparate set of ‘stand-alone’ policies.
  • In delivering activities, schools across the UK said they took a ‘whole-school approach’, but slight differences were also evident between home nations. Those in Scotland delivered activities within the curriculum; Wales both outside the curriculum, but within the school day and outside the school day. England and Northern Ireland generally delivered activities outside the curriculum, but within the school day.
  • Effective third-party providers were felt to be those able to empathise and communicate with children, deliver innovative, creative and original activities, and ensure activities are properly adapted and contextualised to the needs of pupils in their school.
  • Informal information sources – such as personal experience, suggestions from peers and the local authority – were those most often said to be used by teachers to develop activities, as opposed to more ‘hard’ sources such as academic research and reports from charities.
  • The informal information sources – such as teacher observations and feedback, as well as student self-report surveys – are also those teachers reported to rely on the most to measure the impact of their provision, but schools are also open to more validated forms of measurement.
  • The biggest barrier to measuring the impact of activities was said to be a lack of time, with a high proportion of teachers also noting a lack of expertise and funding (especially in Northern Ireland) as key barriers.

To enhance policy and provision for social and emotional skills in the UK, the report presents seven key recommendations targeted at policy-makers, programme providers and funders:

  • Government in England should provide greater coherence and clarity in the area of social and emotional skills policy.
  • Schools should be afforded greater time, space and resources to develop their social and emotional skills provision, drawing on the latest evidence.
  • External providers of activities should work in partnership with schools to devise and deliver adaptable activities.
  • Policy-makers, funders of programmes, and programme providers should continue to emphasise the value of a ‘whole-school approach’ in developing social and emotional skills.
  • Programme providers and their funders should promote the value of a broader range of evidence-based activities to develop social and emotional skills.
  • Funders and governments should encourage the development of longitudinal research to generate robust evidence on what pupils need, and the effectiveness of school-based provision.
  • Policy-makers should adopt a broader understanding of social and emotional skills; accounting for the socially situated nature of these skills as well as their ethical and identity-based dimensions.


Michael Donnelly

Associate Professor at the University of Bath.

Ceri Brown

Associate Professor at the University of Bath

Ioannis Costas Batlle

Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath.

Andrés Sandoval-Hernández

Reader in Educational Research at the University of Bath.