What makes schoolchildren tick? For some, it’s decimals. For others, dance | Yvonne Roberts

The Olympic medallist and former world champion javelin thrower, now a reality TV star, Fatima Whitbread, was abandoned in a flat at three months by her mother and left to die. She was raised in care, raped at 11 and adopted at 14.

Whitbread may not initially appear to have much in common with the indomitable Deborah James, “Bowelbabe”, podcaster and author, who was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer at the age of 35, and lived a further five years, writing powerfully about navigating the cancer that killed her, raising funds and encouraging thousands to seek help early. Yet what the two women share is resilience, grit and an understanding of the power of persistence that adds up to so much more than the ability to pass a maths test at the age of 18.

Both Whitbread, in a recent Guardian interview, and James, in a BBC Two documentary, Bowelbabe in Her Own Words, personify the skills that can help to equip any young person, regardless of background, class or income, to navigate a future that is already present. That means fast-changing industries, and careers yet to be envisaged that require thinking outside the box, adaptability and resourcefulness.

So, when the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, says that all pupils should be taught maths to the age of 18 – let’s leave aside the current shortage of maths teachers and the overstretched, underfinanced resources in schools – it’s a touch like producing a chamberpot on a mission to Mars, and proudly announcing that it’s a radical new sanitary system.

Last week in the Times, Stephen Follows, a film data analyst and educator, described how he had been approached to become “maths champion” for Sunak’s policy, without first being asked if he approved of it. In fact, Follows said, the plan was “misguided” and “tone deaf”. Worse than that, he implied that the prime minister appears to have no clue as to the elements that matter in an education system fit for the 21st century.

“Forcing students to study maths until the age of 18,” Follows said, “risks stifling the passions and interests of individual students.” He urged policymakers at No 10 to “apply themselves to… researching and developing strategies that encourage individual growth and empower our young people”. No 10 would not have to look very far in its research. If, that is, it could first release itself from the corset of testing and treating education as one size fits all. An approach that ignores the failure manifested in the UK’s 788,000 Neets (young people not in education, employment or training), and the many more who decide that if they can’t add up they may as well write themselves off.

In the US, for decades researchers have been examining whether the inner strength that Whitbread says she acquired as a child, the determination not to give up and the ability to tell yourself a positive story against the odds, as demonstrated by James, are skills that can be taught.

For more than 40 years, the American psychologist Ann Masten has investigated resilience, what she terms “ordinary magic”. In other words, the ability to bounce back from adversity, failure or disappointment. In one 20-year longitudinal study of teenagers who had spent time in a psychiatric institution, researchers identified three tools as demonstrating resilience and helping lives to thrive. These were agency – a belief that the individual can intervene effectively in their own lives; relatedness – the ability to make good relationships; and reflectiveness – the willingness to try to make sense of feelings and motivations and act responsibly.

A capacity to bounce back does not result from ignoring, for instance, the deep wounds that poverty, inadequate housing and neglect inflict. Rather, it depends on a model of education that, first, does no harm, and, second, gives each child the social and emotional skills to do far more than just get by.

In 2014, David Cameron’s coalition government launched a £4.5m fund to develop children’s “character, resilience and grit”. Its fatal flaw was that it was a scheme grafted on to the familiar “teaching for the test”, a mix of oil and water.

Positive psychology, in which many would include Masten’s work, has its critics, especially among those who advocate literacy, numeracy and passing exams. But that presupposes that you are in the right frame of mind and have sufficient self-belief to learn in the first place. How to get there? Positive psychology focuses “on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life, instead of repairing the bad”. As Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field, says, ”mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness”.

Character, resilience and optimism – not the same as mindless over-confidence – matter, yet, globally, we constantly tell young people a story saturated in pessimism: they are neurotic, snowflakes, anxious, failing, inadequate – and useless at numbers.

How do you encourage children to flourish? Some schools have succeeded, most often by working against the system. The late educator Ken Robinson used to tell the story of a primary schoolchild in 1930s Kent who was disruptive, couldn’t concentrate and was considered “hopeless” with a learning disorder. The mother was advised to take the girl to a specialist. The specialist said: “Mrs Lynne, the child isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

Gillian Lynne became a world-famous dancer and choreographer. She told Robinson: “I walked into this room and it was wonderful. There were all these people like me. People who couldn’t sit still – people who had to move to think.”

Robinson’s belief was that “people achieve their best when they are in their element… When people find the things they can do, they get better at everything.” So how do we create an education system in which every child experiences being in his or her element – regardless of how good or bad they are with figures?

Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster

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