Exclusive: Children ‘need lessons in how to concentrate’ because of impact of social media

Shadow Education Secretary says pupils’ attention spans need addressing as Labour’s Tristram Hunt dismisses Gove’s ‘cold showers approach’ to character-building

Education Editor

Children should be taught “attentiveness” skills to help combat the influence of social media, the shadow Education Secretary has said.

In an interview with The Independent, Labour’s Tristram Hunt said: “They need to learn the ability to concentrate for sustained periods – especially in today’s world of short attention spans. I think young people need help with being able to do that.”

The intervention comes at a time of rising concern about the impact of the internet and digital gadgets on children’s brain development. The pledge is part of a drive to give more emphasis to developing attributes like “character” and “resilience” in young people, which will be spelt out in a major speech by Mr Hunt on Wednesday.

The reforms will move schools away from being “exam factories” – a criticism made by employers’ groups and others about the current education system – to concentrate more on building rounded young adults with the communication skills to survive in the world of work.

Mr Hunt dismissed the Government’s “Gordonstoun cold showers approach” to character-building – a reference to the Scottish private school attended by generations of the Royal Family. Instead, he said: “We believe there are interventions you can make to teacher training and interventions you can make in schools to build children’s character to promote children’s well-being.”


Mr Hunt said that too often they were dismissed as “soft skills”, but argued: “These are very hard-edged skills young people need to gain. The teaching of resilience and  self-control and character is more and more important to develop, not only in terms of academic attainment but also in terms of the outcomes you need to improve your life chances, employability and all the rest of it.”

He said there was not an “either or” choice between improving exam achievement or well-being, insisting that improving a pupil’s emotional well-being often led to improved academic attainment as well.

“Of course, it’s important that we concentrate on improving literacy and numeracy, getting five A* to C grades at GCSE and the like, but the point is that you can improve your chances of success if you look to a child’s emotional well-being as well,” he said.

Mr Hunt also criticised the approach of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, whose former special adviser Dominic Cummings had persuaded him to meet genetics experts to discuss the importance of geneticism in fostering attainment.

“What is so interesting is, contrary to what those around Michael Gove think, this is not a question of genes or geneticism – these are traits that can be taught to any young person,” he said. “We want all schools to see instilling character among their pupils as part of their educational ethos.”

In the interview, Mr Hunt also attacked Mr Gove’s “1,000 lines and prep” approach to school reforms and his likening of his opponents to “the Blob” – an amoeba that planned to eat the world in a 1950s’ science-fiction movie of the same name. They were, he said, “a testament to Michael Gove’s skills as a journalist”.

He said he felt membership of the Blob was “pretty all-consuming” in the eyes of Mr Gove and his supporters. “There has been a move away from the ‘big tent’ approach in his philosophy,” he said.

In the past, Mr Gove had embraced organisations like the National Association of Head Teachers and Labour stalwart Baroness Sally Morgan – who was recently dismissed by him as chair of the education-standards watchdog Ofsted – but he no longer appears to adopting that approach.

Read more:
Hunt takes on Gove in the battle over the future of education
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