Arguments about our education system are often an indirect way of talking about childhood. What kind of upbringing should we give our children? What are the key components of a satisfying adult life?
Over the last decade, and particularly the last five years, a new narrative has consolidated within our schools, stressing the importance of discipline, data and didacticism. Responding to a failing economy, rising parental stress about our children's economic futures and policymakers' obsession with the link between education and social mobility, reforms to our education system have reinforced a traditionalist approach to learning, and childhood.
The 'Gove revolution' was built, within severe budgetary constraints, on trying to ape the private sector, with its supposedly tougher academic curriculum, so called 'character building' and the establishment of influential social networks, so useful for adult life.
As if in parallel, a new kind of conversation opened up in the cultural mainstream, stressing the importance of hard graft. A prime example of this genre was Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an utterly horrendous but completely gripping account of one form of Chinese parenting, which memorably opened with a list of activities forbidden, by Chua, to her two daughters, including ever attending a sleepover or getting less than an A in a test.
Within education itself, a new generation of teachers, authors such as Robert Peal and Daisy Christodoulou, have taken our school system to task for overly 'progressive' approaches to learning.
Chua, Peal and Christodolou are writers; one can take them or leave them. But Gove's reforms, including a tougher curriculum, harder exams and placing less importance on arts subjects, risk dangerously narrowing the learning experience in our schools.
No surprise then that we are seeing a reaction to the hard graft, data driven, years. In a recent paper, Lord Layard argues that the strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life is not academic results but emotional happiness. With others, he has pioneered an experiment in 31 schools to see if emotional and social skills can be acquired in adolescence. This is not just about helping young people to understand themselves. Happier children learn better.
Meanwhile the marvellous Slow Education movement is pioneering an approach to classroom learning that emphasises process not outcomes: the savouring, rather than spouting, of knowledge. Greater scrutiny of some of the supposedly superior schooling systems of the tiger economies reveal legions of stressed primary school children with failing eyesight. Even Amy Chua seems to have had a slight change of heart. She now claims that much of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was meant in jest, and that ' If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I'd choose happiness in a second. ..'
I, for one, want to cheer. Of course, the acquiring of knowledge and good qualifications matter, particularly for children from less affluent homes who don't have the multiple advantages of their better off peers. But I deplore the increasingly mechanical tick box approach to learning that a punishing accountability system has created in our schools.
I also know too many adults, from all backgrounds, who did very well at school and university, who have less satisfying lives than they might otherwise have had, because they do not have a clue how to understand or manage their emotions or social relationships. All the first class degrees in the world won't help you navigate the perils and pleasures of sex, love, long term partnerships or parenting.
Melissa Benn will be discussing 'Tiger Mothers and Cultural Success' with Frank Furedi and Kate Williams at 10.30 at HowTheLightGetsIn, on Sunday May 31st, at the International venue.