Learning to live

DoreenMassey4x3.jpgDoreen Massey on the worrying impact of Coalition education policies on pupils learning of life skills

Later today in the Lords, Ministers will be asked for reassurance that all school pupils will have access to not only challenging and exciting academic opportunities, but also the information and skills which they will need to be useful citizens. 

Successive governments have, for years, recommended that schools should provide a broad and balanced education. My question does not imply that most schools are not doing this. But that what we mean by breadth and balance, and how this might be provided, has become more complex with the advent of schools that are not required to follow the national curriculum and can choose what children learn, as well as how they learn it. 

All of this raises serious concerns about a child’s entitlement to the skills essential for growing up in an ever challenging world, whether at work, as friends, as parents themselves, in sport or the arts, or on their travels.

Recent debates in the Lords (for example, those tabled by Lord Cormack and Baroness Sheppard) showed colleagues’ depth of concern about the development of knowledge and skills which should sit alongside, and be part of, academic learning. For example, communication, working in teams, respect for self and others, and interpersonal skills. And the CBI has recently called on schools to ensure that when pupils leave they are “rounded and grounded”.

Yet, we hear more about league tables and academic subjects than about the importance of these aspects of schooling. This approach ignores the evidence that some pupils are not able to learn unless their emotional and social development is enhanced. Good schools recognize this and provide life skills support, at the appropriate age and stage of development. Health education is increasingly important, with inputs, again at an appropriate age, on drugs and alcohol, diet, sex and relationships, and resisting negative pressures. Last week, the Chief Medical Officer talked about a crisis in child health.

Schools deliver life skills and health education through the formal curriculum and through specific inputs, often from experts such as the school nurse, the police, first aiders and so on. Qualified teachers know about child development and can judge when others’ experience is of benefit. Teachers cannot, after all, be experts in everything. Effective schools, in their policies, ethos, curriculum and attention to respect and good citizenship, enhance pupils’ ability to value self and others, to protect themselves and to learn effectively.

I worry that this broad and balanced approach to education is now being eroded by the Coalition government’s education policies.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 30th October 2013

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