John Walsh: 'The classroom of the future will be very odd if the Tories have their way'

Tales of the City

Sit up straight, Binns Minor, and do your breathing exercises. Face the front, Farquarson, you wretched child, and adjust your diaphragm. Cease texting your ladyfriends, Gibson, and fill your lungs with ozone ... "

How odd the classroom of the future will be, if the Conservatives get their hands on it. And how will our children react to being inducted into new subjects? (What did you study today, Oscar? "We had Emotional Learning until lunch, then a woman came in with a baby and taught us about Roots of Empathy. Can I have some fish fingers?")

Did you read about Michael Gove, the shadow secretary for schools, and his vision of education in the future? He is keen to break the stranglehold that local authorities currently exert on state schools, and wants to throw schools open to new management.

While he drafts his new Education Reform bill, Gove and his advisers have been talking to the progressive International English School in Sweden, and have asked the French government to help them set up schools styled on the dead-posh Lycée Français in Kensington, London. Gove has also called on the actress Goldie Hawn to offer her thoughts, and is hoping for the support of President Obam–

What? Yes, that Goldie Hawn, the former ditzy, giggling, bikini-clad comedienne on TV in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in the late 1960s, turned Oscar-nominated Hollywood sweetheart in movies such as Private Benjamin, Death Becomes Her and The First Wives Club. She's an unlikely ally of the somewhat straight-laced Gove, but appearances are deceptive.

Hawn may seem as daft as a bottle of crisps, but she's a busy philanthropist, especially when it comes to the education of children. Though raised a Jew, she has embraced Buddhism and a raft of quasi-religious beliefs, and through her charity, the Hawn Foundation, endorses a Buddhist technique called "mindfulness training" and a programme called MindUp that she invented in Vancouver some years ago.

This is what Gove would like to see introduced into British state schools. It's a jolly rum business. MindUp has nothing to do with numeracy or literacy. It teaches children about the brain and how it works; it gives them breathing exercises, to learn how to calm themselves and focus their attention. In that way (the brochure says) "they feel empowered when they can manage their emotions and make better choices". All this is part of a larger concern called Social and Emotional Learning, which is now taught in American schools as assiduously as the three Rs.

Whether you welcome this stuff as a giant step in the teaching of social responsibility, or dismiss it as a footling distraction from filling your child with facts about artesian wells and the Russian revolution, depends on you. But how odd to find the Conservative party embracing something so resolutely un-traditional and new-fangled. Or is it? Look closer, and it starts to sound a bit alarming. A testimonial on Goldie's website describes one of the little boys, sorry, empowered juvenile citizens, who went through the MindUp baptism. Here he is: "A kindergarten student who was being bullied in school was moved to another class. Recently this student had contact with his previous class and classmates. Apparently he spent some time thinking about what had happened. While in the car, he told his mom he knew why the other boy bullied him ... he said the boy did not use his prefrontal cortex to make good decisions and he often acted that way because of his amygdala. His mom was amazed ... and told the teacher and parents at school." I'm not a bit surprised. If I found a nine-year-old talking about his flipping amygdala, I'd call the cops. If one of my children started speaking like a midget pop-psychologist, I'd hunt down the perpetrators with a ninja flail.

The Goldie programme is meant to reduce aggression and increase empathy among the students, to keep them focused on their work, on learning and getting on, to turn them into good little citizens. It has no truck with naughtiness, spirit, anti-authority stances or a refusal to join in, all of which are healthy childish responses to being told what to do. No wonder Gove is so keen on this smoothly dirigiste doctrine. And how strange to find Hawn mixed up in the kind of thing we've have laughed ourselves silly at, back in the days of Laugh-In, when she was our dream girl.

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