Health debates seek broader view of skills

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Children need more than literacy and numeracy to face the challenges of the 21st century - they require a whole new set of skills, a coalition of health and education professionals is to tell the Government.

A conference hosted by the Health Education Authority and the Royal Society of Arts has voiced concern at the Government's "19th-century" agenda for schools, saying basic skills are not enough.

Participants argued for a broader vision of education which would teach young people how to take decisions and influence the future direction of society - a society in which such old certainties as family stability, jobs for life and close-knit communities no longer hold.

Keynote speaker Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "If we don't have a national curriculum that recognises these things, we are not going to have an system fit for the 21st century. In a society that's more complicated, more confusing, more risky, we have to equip children with the ability to take part in discussions about these issues rather than just making individual judgments."

He was speaking during the education session of Whose Health is it Anyway?, a series of four debates about public health - others have covered health and the family, the community and the workplace. The conclusions will be put to public health minister Tessa Jowell at a conference in February.

They mark an attempt to influence the agenda at a time when the new Government is raising the profile of public health.

Health Secretary Frank Dobson has acknowledged the need for improved community-based health services which can help create better living conditions and promote healthier lifestyles, particularly in the inner cities.

That means working closely with businesses, housing agencies, social services. But it also means finding ways of allowing communities to define their needs - particularly when the Government's tight grip on public finances mean choices have to be made.

The view of many at last week's conference was that schools needed to play a part by teaching children how to take part in these debates and influence future services.

It goes beyond extra-curricular PE and teaching safe sex, drug awareness and nutrition - although those all play their part.

Hundreds of schools across the country are already running initiatives. But increasingly calls are being made for health - and the skills that encourage it - to be better welded into the curriculum. More confident, self-assertive and articulate children are more likely to make healthy choices.

Health researcher Professor Hilary Graham, of Manchester University, said: "Who leads adolescents into smoking? It's the boys and girls heading for early school-leaving. It's marking out disadvantage in later life. We see it only as health education. We should look at their education experience now - it could be the most powerful way of reducing their smoking."

Professor Anne Jones, director of Brunel University's centre for lifelong learning, said literacy and numeracy were a "19th-century" view of skills. "We need skills nobody has mentioned yet . . . lateral thinking, creativity, anticipatory skills, self-management skills, the ability to be rigorous. Basic skills will not equip us for the next century - they will just equip us to be fodder for the next world."

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