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Sixth Best in the World, But is our Education System Creating an Uncompassionate Society?

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Following the recent news that the UK has the world's sixth best education system, I thought now would be a good time to share some of my own research.

This research involved zero analysis of exam results, no evaluation of teacher performance, and has yielded not a single league table. My findings are based entirely on the three days that I spent at a conference in London called Empathy and Compassion in Society.

The conference was held in two parts. First there was an event for teenagers, where 280 secondary school pupils from across London were invited to debate the question: do you have to be ruthless to succeed in life? This was followed by two days of presentations from 'international experts in the study and application of compassion', to an audience of teachers, doctors, nurses and other public sector professionals.

From these two very different gatherings emerged one striking conclusion - our institutions, and our education system in particular, are failing when it comes to building a more compassionate society.

One of the most telling moments was when a young man named Sam announced that school life was not set up to help him and his fellow teenagers to be kind and compassionate. The name of the game, he said, is to get good exam results - end of story. Society wants us all to be ruthless, arrogant and individualistic. A show of hands revealed that almost all the 14 to 18-year-olds in the room agreed.

The economist and Labour peer Richard Layard, who has been working to push happiness and well-being up the political agenda, echoed Sam's point when he spoke the following day. "The problem is we are not offering young people any proper vision of what could be the purpose of their lives. If we are offering them a purpose, it's that you have to do better than other people - and that's not a very good basis for a good society, or even a happy society."

Young people, Lord Layard told me later, are treated like racehorses whose role is simply to try and go faster than the rest. "Currently most governments, and certainly this government, are putting far more stress on intellectual development, which is actually very short-sighted. It's even the case that if you only cared about intellectual development you should invest in their emotional development, because a happy child learns better."

Amid troubling statistics about mental illness and our declining trust in our fellow human beings, the conference speakers shared examples of projects that focus on emotional development and 'pro-social' behaviour.

Roots of Empathy, for children up to primary school age, is based on the simple concept of taking a baby into a classroom with one of its parents. The children are introduced one by one to the baby, and then invited to observe its behaviour and discuss its feelings and needs. Research has shown that the programme cuts aggression and bullying. It has been running in Northern Ireland and Scotland since 2010, and was introduced in October at 14 primary schools in the London boroughs of Lewisham and Croydon.

The psychologists Yotam Heineberg and Rony Berger reported encouraging results from a pilot programme designed to reduce stress and prejudice and increase pro-social behaviour among young people in inner cities and warzones. Daniel Favre presented research showing that training teachers in empathy can reduce violence among teenagers.

Lord Layard, who co-edited the first World Happiness Report for the United Nations, believes emotional learning should be a key part of the school curriculum. He is developing a four-year course in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) based on materials that have been subjected to randomised, controlled trials. The theologian and author Karen Armstrong, who launched the Charter for Compassion in 2009, is attempting to create a network of 'compassionate schools' around the world.

When I spoke to the teenagers after their debate on empathy and compassion, they were still convinced that you need to be ruthless to succeed in life - at least up to a point. Young people have to be tough and aggressive to be accepted and respected by their peers, they said. Their parents are so desperate to make sure they get jobs that they contribute to the problem by pushing them to succeed at all costs. And the media's relentless focus on negativity and bad news means examples of compassion and altruism are not given a chance to resonate with young people.

Three days at a conference clearly don't make me an education expert. But I heard enough, from the pupils themselves and from people who have dedicated serious time and research to this question, to realise that if we want to create a happier and more compassionate society, focusing all our attention and resources on exam results is clearly not the answer.