There are now schools in England where having a best friend can get you in trouble. Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist working with schools in south-west London, told The Sunday Times : "I have noticed that teachers tell children they shouldn't have a best friend and that everyone should play together... They're doing it because they want to save the child the pain of splitting up from their best friend."
I'm grateful to Dr Dennis Hayes, a professor of education writing for the excellent webzine Sp!ked, for pointing out this latest incursion of therapeutic madness into our school system.
In February, Tim Gill, who manages the fascinating Rethinking Childhood blog, was moved to post these words: "A school in England has recently banned children from playing hide-and-seek. It has also banned children from writing notes to each other. It has also – and this truly stretches credibility – banned children from having best friends."
Parents across the country will have heard of new "subjects" such as SEAL – Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning' – in which pupils' emotions are policed, to ensure they are appropriate.
Some people argue this is all part of the feminisation of schooling. A reduction in the number of male teachers, as a proportion of the overall teaching population, has led to a greater emphasis on emotions and feelings in the classroom. I think this analysis is patronising, rude to women, and intellectually limited.
What we do know is that over the past few decades, there has been a gradual voiding of knowledge from our schools. Academic education has been systematically attacked, and while proper schooling – in the traditional sense of passing bodies of knowledge down the generations – has been preserved for the rich, what the poor have been given instead of schooling is skilling. The rise of vocational education and the rise of emotional literacy in the classroom are both a consequence of the flight from academic education.
But there is something more fundamental going on too, which Professor Frank Furedi, pictured, described in Paranoid Parenting more than a decade ago. We are cultivating vulnerability in the classroom, just like we've long cultivated it in the playground. "The teaching profession is being reformed as a therapeutic profession," Dr Hayes, a close associate of Furedi's, writes, "often prioritising the delivery of therapy over education to 'vulnerable' children and young people."
The emotional policing of school children, including various bans on best friends, is designed to protect them from each other. Its main effect may ultimately be to stop them from protecting themselves.