Teach children to live life to the full

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Anthony Seldon Master of Wellington College, Berkshire

What kind of schools do we want? Is it just a question of maximising performance in public exams so the students can pass onto higher education or jobs? This is certainly what most governments seem to believe. Or is there a wider vision, which is not top down but bottom up, which is concerned with development of the whole child? I believe that education in Britain is seriously misconceived and badly needs rebalancing away from the obsession with the end qualification in favour of and developing all facets of every child's abilities. "Every child matters" takes us some of the way there.

The concept of general intelligence (or "g"), associated with such controversial luminaries as Cyril Burt and Hans Eysenck, lies behind much of the narrow vision of British schools. They believe that "intelligence" is defined by various narrow intellectual qualities that can be measured in "intelligence tests". Such insistence on a narrow definition of intelligence is pernicious. Howard Gardner's work on "multiple intelligences", which has been around for 25 years, and which postulates that the individual possesses several equally valid intelligences, is remarkable not for the extent of its impact, but for the opposite. British education is obsessed by tests and examinations, and dedicated to worshipping on the altar of mental ability as the sole validator of a child's worth.

Instead of the top down focus on mental intelligence, schools need to give far greater emphasis to the bottom up approach. One must ask, "what is it to be a human being, and what is the purpose of education?" My own school draws on the works of Howard Gardner, Kurt Hahn (which was a significant influence on the development of the International Baccalaureate) and others, and says each human being has eight faculties which fall neatly into four sets of pairs: linguistic and logical; social and personal; cultural and physical; moral and spiritual, each of which we try to develop.

A government of the centreleft should take far more seriously this idea of developing every child's potential, and for two reasons. Children from non privileged backgrounds have far fewer opportunities than others to develop their wider faculties.

There is evidence, also, to suggest that the earlier one develops the education of the whole child, the deeper the learning, as with languages. Skills not developed at school are unlikely to be later in life. Schools need to devote more time to helping children discover who they are, what they love about life and how to live it to the full.

This is where the "well-being" classes come in, attacked two weeks ago in a thoughtful column on this page by Peter Wilby. These classes are designed to help the young learn how to live fuller and richer lives. For Peter Wilby, the reduction of poverty should come above teaching well-being as objectives in our schools. Ending the poverty of the curricular and extra-curricular life of our schools, which destines many to live just half lives (if that) till they die, is an even more urgent objective.

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