Health: Britain on the Couch - in a Perfect School, This Is What Children Would Learn

By James, Oliver | The Independent (London, England), September 29, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Health: Britain on the Couch - in a Perfect School, This Is What Children Would Learn


James, Oliver, The Independent (London, England)


LET'S PLAY Fantasy Education Secretaries: you are transmogrified into the Education Secretary David Blunkett and Tony gives you a bank cheque to create the perfect education system, starting from scratch. What existing subject areas, values and teaching methods will you reproduce, and what will be your new ones?

Perhaps you are happy with the current emphasis on exam results as the sole criterion for success, and applaud taking this to the beginning of formal education. You may even endorse "baseline assessments" for all five-year-olds, as Blunkett recently did - but why stop there? Why not begin after birth, with nationwide assessments of neonatal capacities, and annual check-ups of mental development?

Faced with a blank piece of paper, most of us would accept the need to write down (if we can) "teaching the three Rs". The fundamental goal of all education systems must be to provide future citizens with the basic mental and emotional kit to fulfil their potential within that society. Any British system must teach the three Rs, yet our rates of illiteracy are among the highest in Europe. More than half of all pupils leave school without obtaining three or more GCSEs at grades A-C after their average of 15,000 hours of schooling. These facts suggest that at the bottom end the system is not working, and David Blunkett is quite right to put the matter at the top of his list of priorities.

Where my Fantasy Blueprint differs from Blunkett's is in its overall goals. I suspect that it is more important to him to create high-achieving graduates than to create individuals likely to fulfil their unique potential. Likewise, producing law-abiding, well socialised citizens is more important to him than creating emotionally literate, insightful young people who are likely to have satisfying intimate relationships. With a few exceptions (mostly Scandinavian), government education departments throughout the developed world exist principally to create well programmed, obedient workers.

Since educational success so heavily determines subsequent career options, neither schools nor parents can afford to ignore the imperative to get the good exam results upon which the whole system is judged. This priority of cognitive over emotional skills is found in every aspect of the system.

There are some among New Labour who see the commitment to creating extra nursery school places as an opportunity to improve emotional literacy among parents. A recent publication (The psychology of nursery education, edited by AM Sandler, Karnac Books) showed just how this could be done, based on decades of experience at the Anna Freud Centre in London.

But such enlightened thinking faces strong opponents. Nearly all academic and clinical psychologists largely ignore emotions and motivations and focus on thoughts and social skills. Likewise, increasingly ambitious parents and all mainstream politicians are liable to regard small children as computers in search of the right programme, rather than as existential entities.

By contrast, teachers are often fighting to make education less exam- obsessed and more concerned with emotional well-being. For their pains, they are slagged off by the right-wing press and parents for not trying to extract every last ounce of exam juice from their annual crop.

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