Don't be happy, worry

19th December 2003 at 00:00
Should the happiness of children be at the centre of education theory, or should pupils expect to be put under pressure, asks Stuart Waiton

Next year, my son John will start school. Which one has yet to be decided, and the more I discuss local primary schools with other parents, the more confused I become.

Various issues have arisen. For example, should we, as a point of principle, send John to the school nearest us that appears to be 100 per cent Asian or the one further away that has a 5050 mix of children? Or should we, despite being atheists, send John to the Catholic school nearby?

The biggest problem we face, however, is trying to work out which school will actually push John so that he is educated well.

The reason this concerns myself and my wife is that the very act of being pushed or disciplined today appears to be seen as a potential problem for children.

A year or so ago, a motion was proposed at a teachers' union conference that exams should be banned because they are a form of child abuse. This is clearly an extreme view and, unsurprisingly, the motion failed. However, only recently I came across an article in a Tory-supporting broadsheet by Gareth Lewis, arguing not only that exams are a type of abuse but that "schools bully children - coerce them - in almost every aspect of their organisation".

Lewis's argument is that a child's happiness is central to its education.

If a child is unhappy, he or she will not learn and therefore schools should never force, coerce or bully a child into doing anything that he or she doesn't want to do. Pushing all kids to read and write at the same time is ultimately, in Lewis's view, a form of harassment that will lead to stress and trauma in children who feel "oppressed by the pressure to acquire skills".

Zero tolerance of bullying, he concludes, can only be achieved by parents refusing to put their children into any situation in which they are not happy.

I may have thought that Lewis (a home education advocate) was just another extremist, were it not for the fact that I know two parents who have recently changed schools because their children were unhappy with the pressure they were under.

Another parent, whose child attends a Catholic school, also told me that she was thinking about changing schools because the headteacher was old-fashioned and shouted at the children - something the mother felt was tantamount to child abuse.

Indeed the core of Lewis's argument - that children's fragile emotions should be central to the concern of educators - is increasingly mainstream.

Words such as discipline and authority today carry negative connotations, while terms such as self-esteem and emotional literacy can be found in any education manual. The happiness of the child rather than the knowledge a pupil acquires has, it appears, become ever more central to the ethos of schools.

But children should be forced to do things against their will. We are not born with a desire to eat our greens, look both ways when we cross the road or read and write. These are socially enforced ways of behaving and learning that adults know are necessary and useful to individuals and to society as a whole, regardless of how children feel about them.

Indeed how children feel - especially younger ones - is often very transitory and more to do with a whim than a will. It is the job of adults to educate children so that they can control their emotions rather than being controlled by them. By doing so, we enable children to become self-disciplined in their lives and learning.

Basing educational approaches on the happiness of a child will ultimately prevent adults from pushing children to reach beyond themselves and achieve things they never believed possible. Ironically, this approach also risks crippling children emotionally as, by labelling difficulties felt while under pressure as trauma and stress, we run the risk of turning everyday educational tasks into mental health illnesses.

So if after a few years John comes home and tells me he's suffering from depression, I'll know it really is time to change schools.

Stuart Waiton is a director of

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