Health: Britain on the couch - In a perfect school, this is what children would learn

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The Independent Culture
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. Questioning of exams by teachers is dismissed as an attempt to escape measures of how effective their teaching is.

But what if emotional outcomes were taken into account? Imagine a system in which independent assessment was made of the emotional well-being of children at each year's end. League tables of schools could include rates of mild and severe depression among the pupils, and records of eating disorders, suicide attempts and pupils cautioned or convicted of crimes.

The objection is easy to envisage: surely these have nothing to do with schools, are purely the consequence of genes and parental care? So they are, to some extent. It would be pernicious to add mental illnesses and criminality to the already lengthening list of ailments for which teachers are held responsible. But the real purpose would be for parents and politicians to be forced to make a proper audit of the real costs and benefits of the present system, by including the emotional price.

It is so hard to imagine such an audit because we completely take for granted that schools are exam factories whose main purpose is to prepare children for the workplace, a rehearsal for the real factories. Although this is barely conceivable, were education really in the best interests of children rather than advanced capitalism, it would prioritise issues that are currently left to chance.

Off the top of my head, here are a few examples of "things they should have taught you at school": beware of marrying young; pure talent is rarely the key to career success - high motivation and low cunning are much more important; lying is an indispensable element of both professional and personal relationships; the pursuit of power, wealth and status are prime motivations in most people's lives, despite that achieving them does not bring happiness or fulfilment.

But perhaps it is asking too much to expect government to pay for one of its agencies to expose the double-thinking truth behind the official rhetoric of the rules of adult life - that in many respects, we live in Orwell's Oceania. More realistic might be to hope that every school devotes more time to basic emotional literacy classes. Of the many initiatives in this field, David Blunkett could do worse than turn to a published explication of the role of personal and social relationships curricula by a retired teacher, Robert McKecknie (Let's Ask The Children, published by First and Best in Education, Northants).

He struggled against the odds during the Eighties to introduce effective programmes of self-development, but was stymied by the reluctance of schools to give it priority within the timetable - there were too many exams to be passed.

His modest 56-page treatise contains more sense than any government White Paper on education and its implementation would do lot to moderate the emotional damage caused by existing educational priorities.

The paperback edition of Oliver James's book, `Britain On The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared with 1950, Despite Being Richer', is published by Arrow, price pounds 7.99