Education Quandary

'The Government is telling schools to teach children to be nice. Now a professor says: "Teach them to be happy." Is this all mumbo-jumbo?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

Teachers have always taught children to be nice, so all the Government is doing here is loading them down with yet more directives and targets. By all means give them money to do it. Point out its importance as niceness dwindles in society. Circulate useful research evidence, if you must. But, for Heaven's sake, leave teachers alone to do it as they think best.

Teaching happiness? That is a much more interesting question. The argument of Professor Richard Layard of the LSE is that, despite growing prosperity, we are no happier than we were 50 years ago. In fact, our striving, mobile, consumerist society is eroding the very things we most need to feel good - a secure job, a sense of family and community, good health, freedom and a positive attitude. And simply teaching young people to aim for individual self-advancement, which by and large is what schools do, is part of this, he argues.

Children obviously have to acquire skills and learning, but they need other basics: a sense of their own moral centre, to appreciate the importance of good relationships, the ability to look after their health, the mental skill to solve problems, and a capacity to enjoy the good fortune of others. In short, he says, teach them and their parents emotional literacy and the world will be a better place.

This isn't just a mushy liberal humanism; there's a sound economic argument as well. Unhappiness costs societies dear in terms of mental illness, fractured neighbourhoods, rising crime and growing levels of addiction.

Plus, of course, you only have to look at the pinched faces of some of the young people who hang around our high streets by day, or stumble out of clubs by night, to know that the diet we are dishing up to them is not right.

Readers' advice

We have lost sight of what schools are for and, incredibly, we have lost sight of what parents are for. How can a school teach happiness? It is subjective, anyway. The Government seems to think it is a teacher's job to teach our children how to behave (to be nice to each other). But parents should teach by example. Being respectful, empathetic, tactful and honest will be part of a child's character. They are not qualities that can be learnt in a classroom.
Angela Elliott, Lincolnshire

HG Wells seems to have caught the spirit of Professor Layard's ideals when he describes the Eloi in The Time Machine. That indolent race spend their time in pleasure and ignorance, but are destined to be slaves of their underworld masters. Such an objective is madness. Yes, manners and niceness are important. However, of paramount importance are knowledge, powers of reason, and drive. Without those, this nation will not prosper, and the education system must strive to achieve them.
Michael K Baldwin, Kent

Picture three children going home, all looking happy. One girl has gained top marks in maths, having beaten all those clever boys. A boy is smiling because he has beaten up a smaller boy. A second girl has been taken into the friendship group she most admires, in place of another girl who is no longer wanted.

Three happy young people: happy for very different reasons, but with one thing in common. Their happiness was obtained at the cost of someone else.

Could Professor Layard encourage them to find their joy without hurting others? That's the secret of enjoying life and increasing the sum of human happiness. How can it be done? By giving them role models whose happiness has not been obtained selfishly.
Ainslie Walton, Glasgow

Next week's quandary

I have heard that from next year students are going to have to say on their university application forms whether they are a member of the National Association of Gifted and Talented Youth. Will that penalise people like my daughter, who is clever but says that there's no way she will join a club for swots?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 21 March, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser