Layard versus Woodhead

I saw Richard Layard talk at the LSE last week on the Good Childhood report he and others have just brought out.

He suggested that the UK needs a 'revolution in values', involving a shift away from pushing children towards success, and instead trying to help them achieve happiness. Success, as he put it, is a 'zero sum' game. 'We can't all be winners'. Instead, young people could be encouraged to pursue 'positive sum games', in which everyone wins, such as learning that helping other people is very gratifying.

He suggested that Thatcherism was part of the problem - it had created great inequality in the UK, and led to a culture of selfishness, including selfish parents who put their own satisfaction above their children's.

On the other hand, I read an interesting article by Chris Woodhead, former chief schools inspector, in the Sunday Times today, in which he basically laid into Layard, and said we should spend more time teaching children about the world, and less on trying to protect them from failure.

He writes:

Competition was the lifeblood of my south London grammar school in the 1950s and 1960s...Things began to change in the late 1960s. Politically, Tony Crosland, Harold Wilson’s education secretary, began his campaign to destroy grammar schools. Every child was equal; no child should suffer the humiliation of failing the 11-plus; comprehensive schools would offer equal opportunities to all...

In 1986 Sir Keith Joseph, as Tory education secretary, was persuaded that we should no longer divide 16-year-olds into the academic sheep and the less able goats. The GCSE examination replaced the old O-level and CSE examinations. Despite reassurances that standards would be maintained, grades rocketed and the politicians, I guess, realised they were on to a good thing.

He suggests that:

We have all signed up to a national programme of self-deception in which real competition in demanding tests with the inevitable prospect of a significant number of students failing has been banished from our education system.

He then takes direct aim at Layard:

If you have children at the top end of primary school, ask them what they did last week. The odds are that they will have spent some time on the government’s Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) programme. In a typical Seal lesson 9 to 10-year-olds will be asked to fill in rings of a circle with, from the centre, the names of the people closest to them they love; of people they like a lot; of people they know quite well; and, the outer ring, people they know as acquaintances. [Editors' note - this is actually a practice from ancient Stoicism, which Martha Nussbaum suggested we should introduce into education in her book Cultivating Humanity - see my interview with her below for a brief discussion of it].

The authors of a report on childhood commissioned by the Children’s Society think that we must employ a thousand more therapists and counsellors to help our damaged children. What we really need is a little clarity about the nature of education and the miseries of man. Life is about failure and learning from failure. We do our children no favours when we cocoon them in a false sense of success.

We need more competition, not less as the report for the Children’s Society advocates. Why can’t we be more honest? Why can't we admit that some children will fail? When is education policy going to be rescued from the corrosive sentimentality into which it has sunk?

Who are we to back in this debate?

I think that, actually, they are both making a false dichotomy, between a culture of success, on the one hand, and a culture of personal growth on the other.

Actually, there's no reason why learning to be 'resilient', learning not to base your self-esteem entirely on externals, shouldn't actually make you more open, more prepared to take risks and to fail and, yes, perhaps more successful, while at the same time helping you not get carried away if you are granted external success.

It is when you have a strong inner anchor that you can seek your goals in the outside world in a balanced way, without getting too knocked back by failure, and without getting too carried away by success.

Nor do I think that, just because we might decide that education teaches things like values and cognitive management skills, that it necessarily has to avoid teaching a healthy pleasure in competition.

In fact, one of Layard's points is that schools should make sports more available. Well, the life-blood of sports is competition. But truly great sportsmen learn how to handle defeats, how to deal with set-backs, and how to respect your opponents and respect the rules of the game.

That, surely, is what our schools should be teaching - not that there is no such thing as failure. There is, of course. But that to have tried and failed is better than not to have tried at all. And also that we can often learn more from failure, in terms of useful feedback, than we can from success.

As for Woodhead's mocking of the touchy-feeliness of PSHE (personal, social and health education) and SEAL programmes, well, it's easy to mock any value system as soft. I imagine Woodhead would think the Lord's Prayer or the Gospel on the Mount were pretty soft if the government suddenly invented it. 'Blessed are the meek - what is this claptrap?'

I personally think, if we want to teach young people about values, then we should not mess around with psychobabble hatched by psychologists a few years or months ago. We should teach them the classics - the best that was thought by man and woman.

That would mean teaching them both values and techniques from the Stoics, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, the New Testament, the Torah, and also from atheist philosophies such as humanism or Epicureanism. Most modern psychology is derived from these sources anyway, so why not take young people direct to the source, let them discover it for themselves.

You could call the subject 'Approaches to the Good Life'.

I don't think teachers should get too involved in the psyches of young people. Better give them the books, and the tools, for understanding their own minds, and then let them draw on it if they want to.

I also think 11 is too young to be learning about this stuff. Young people should be learning about it when they are say 16, when they really start to think about who they are and what they want from life.