My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak in today’s debate. We are fortunate that the most reverend Primate uses his unique position in this House to elevate our horizons from time to time, to focus on topics of profound significance for the future of society. In doing so, he raises the overall tone of discourse in this Chamber, which we have seen in abundance in the contributions so far, including his own outstanding introduction. He highlighted the importance of character and values-based education, where the Church of England has provided pioneering leadership. This approach contains many of the ingredients to unite diverse communities in Britain and the potential to provide much-needed glue for social cohesion.
In the brief time available, I shall approach the subject from a slightly different angle to other Members of your Lordships’ House by speaking specifically about the Indian perspectives on education, encompassing the Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist traditions, which share a common Vedic heritage, along with the important role and status accorded to teachers in that culture. All traditions and civilisations honour to a greater or lesser degree the pursuit of knowledge, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. The briefing papers for today’s debate rightly identify Aristotle as an inspiration for the philosophy of human flourishing, connecting the pursuit of happiness to the cultivation of virtue. In the Vedic civilisation of India, which predates Aristotle by more than 1,000 years, a similar knowledge system provided the very organisational basis for society. Importantly, that system was holistic in its design, emphasising nourishment of the mind, body and spirit. That is where yoga and meditation originate, and I shall return to these in my remarks.
Hopefully, this understanding of history explains why Indians positively embrace the quest for learning and education. This is not just nostalgia; it is evident today in modern Britain, now home to 1.5 million people of Indian origin. The data recently compiled by the Cabinet Office as part of the Government’s race disparity audit shows that, far from being a disadvantaged minority, British Indians rank top in a number of economic and social metrics. Specifically, Department for Education rankings show that Indian people, alongside Chinese, have the highest attainment throughout school, make the most progress and are the most likely to stay in education and go to university.
What can we learn from this cultural anthropology? I shall highlight three specific points of practical relevance today. The first is openness to new ideas, which is almost a prerequisite for any form of education and self-discovery. The Rig Veda, one of the oldest living scriptures found anywhere, which I used to take my oath in this House, says in the ancient language of Sanskrit, “Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah”, which means, “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions”. That phrase feels particularly suited to this House and today’s debate. It is also crucial for a world that is becoming increasingly inwards, insular and intolerant. It is therefore vital that we keep open, rather than close off, young minds.
The second lesson is the special status accorded to teachers, referred to as “gurus” in the Vedic traditions, and to the relationship with students, or shishyas. A guru is revered and held in high esteem, not only for who they are and what they know but also for their role as a custodian of fundamental values that are passed from one generation to the next. There is an important distinction here: the job of a teacher as we know it today has almost become a transactional relationship, an expert who knows something that the pupil seeks to acquire. In contrast, a guru is somebody much more significant: a source of wisdom, inspiration and guidance, a mentor who leads by example, concerned with the overall well-being of the shishya and looking forward to a time when their disciples step into their shoes, as the cycle of life turns once more.
The cause of elevating the status of teachers throughout the world has recently been taken up, perhaps appropriately, by an Indian-origin entrepreneur called Sunny Varkey, whose parents were teachers. He felt that the diminishing respect we have for educators is one reason why there is a recruitment and retention crisis in the profession so, in 2013, the Varkey Foundation commissioned an international study called the Global Teacher Status Index, which found that only in China do teachers occupy the same high perception as doctors. Everywhere else, teaching is seen as a middle to low-ranking profession in terms of social status.
These findings prompted the Varkey Foundation to launch the Global Teacher Prize, an annual $1 million award presented to an exceptional teacher who was made an outstanding contribution to their profession. In only three years since its launch, the process of awarding this prize had captured worldwide imagination, now attracting more than 30,000 entries from 178 countries. There is little doubt that teachers deserve to be properly recognised and celebrated, given the multiplier of the impact on the students and communities around them.
The third lesson I wanted to highlight is the holistic nature of Vedic education, the most well-known features of which are yoga and meditation. A growing body of research has shown that these practices can improve focus, memory, self-esteem, academic performance and classroom behaviour, and can even reduce anxiety and stress in children. Ironically, the briefing paper for our debate looks to the US for reference points about social and emotional learning at a time when Americans themselves are looking east. There is a wave spreading across America introducing yoga and meditation into the classroom, and it is only a matter of time before it arrives here.
In conclusion, to cite Mark Twain:
“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition”.
If even only a small part of that poetic licence is true, we should learn from its deep wisdom and deploy some of the lessons I have described, particularly those related to elevating the status of teachers, for the benefit of generations to come.