Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 2:02 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, education is too good to be devoted entirely to the young, and the young are far too important to all our futures for education to be anything less than holistic. By holistic, I mean educating the whole person in every aspect: not just their brain but their heart, their hands and, in a debate initiated by the most reverend Primate, I might risk adding their soul. We should be preparing the young for the society, economy and technology of tomorrow—for tomorrow.

Trying to do that through a narrow focus on testable knowledge to the exclusion of all else is, frankly, plain wrong. The desired outcome of school education should be that children leave the process as young adults, ready and able to make the most of the gifts and talents that they enjoy and to develop them further throughout their lives, so that they can become productive members of society in the workplace and in their families and communities.

Some will become wealth creators and employers; others will join the service and caring professions, including teaching; each will contribute to the success and well-being of others. The single most important thing is that their lives should be fulfilled and happy ones. In a country which was highlighted by UNICEF 10 years ago as having the unhappiest children in the western world, we have a great opportunity. We can maximise that, above all by fostering a sense of duty and altruism, because research suggests that the happiest people are those who give.

How do we foster and develop that ethos of generosity through education? Certainly not through compartmentalised character education or personal, social and health education. The whole of education—all of it—should develop character, and families as well as schools must play their part in developing those qualities that are essential for life but cannot be measured by academic markers: self-confidence, self-discipline, resilience, resourcefulness, emotional intelligence, caring for other people. All those are key among the qualities that ultimately make for happiness.

You cannot teach these in 40-minute slots like French or history or chemistry. There needs to be space in the curriculum for all the other things—sports, drama, debating, music or completing a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. They are all great experiences that expand minds and build character. Getting a thumping on the rugby pitch, finding yourself lost on the Brecon Beacons on an Outward Bound expedition, or working as a team to put together an amazing dramatic or musical performance will certainly teach youngsters far more about resilience and perseverance than any number of extra lessons on a Friday afternoon. What is more, those experiences will actually help them to cope better with tough maths problems in future.

So this is not an argument for diluting academic rigour; it is far from that—it is about encouraging a wider and more intelligent view of education, which will ultimately help to raise academic standards. This is what I mean by holistic education: education that is broad and all-absorbing, which requires all involved—students, teachers and parents—to understand that everything plays its part in ultimately delivering a happy, rounded individual, equipped to play a useful role in society. That means accepting that not even extra maths or English is intrinsically more important than a drama lesson or sports practice and that we need to make space for all those things.

The most important thing that I have learned as a businessman, traveller and trustee, focusing particularly on disadvantaged young people, is that we have some truly exceptional young talent in this country. Most of those, from the most unpromising of backgrounds, can achieve most remarkable things. I have seen it at first hand many times. So let us help all our young people to make the most of their lives and maximise their personal happiness as members of a flourishing and skilled society, not by setting yet more tests and benchmarks but by liberating schools, students, families and charities to work together in the common purpose of building character and happiness through a truly holistic education.