04/09/2013 08:05 BST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Back to School: Whatever Happened to a Good Education?

As schools across England and Wales return from their summer holidays - with thousands entering the education system for the first time in their young lives - I am reminded of the words of a wonderful Sri Lankan friend of mine.

As schools across England and Wales return from their summer holidays - with thousands entering the education system for the first time in their young lives - I am reminded of the words of a wonderful Sri Lankan friend of mine.

"All this killing is being led and supported by extremely well educated and highly cultured people," he said.

He was not taking sides in his country's war. He was bearing witness to a society being dismembered despite having some of the highest social indicators, including education, anywhere in Asia.

His words have haunted me. Education in itself is not necessarily a guarantee of civilization.

To the extent that education can change the world, as Malala Yousafzai, the young victim of Taliban violence, said in her recent address to the United Nations - it depends on what we mean by education and how that is best delivered for the benefit of all.

It is a question with which all educators wrestle.

When the great meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche came to the West, after the exodus from Tibet, he first studied at Oxford University (as a Spaulding Fellow) and then went on to lay the foundations for the first Buddhist-inspired university in the Western world - Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

The Naropa goal echoes the original meaning of the Latin term to educate, which means literally to 'draw out' or 'lead forth' - implying that there is something within the student that needs to be cultivated, not imposed.

What set this institution apart from the outset was an emphasis on what came to be known as Contemplative Education; now a worldwide movement that seeks to cultivate the inherent power of the human mind and heart.

The movement is taking roots in the UK. I am looking forward to hearing Chris Cullen, previously Head of Pastoral Care & Counselling at Hampton School in London and now co-founder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, share his experience at the Awake in the World festival being held in London next week.

Chris and his team have developed a mindfulness curriculum for teenagers called .b (dot-be) that is being used in a growing number of schools to engage even the most cynical of students in the UK and across Europe.

A recent evaluation of the dot-be programme showed significant differences between participant and control groups' mindfulness, resilience and well-being. Students, teachers and parents reported improvements in students' motivation and confidence, competence and effectiveness.

These experiments in Contemplative Education - aiming to cultivate the whole person - include an initiative by the influential upstate New York Garrison Institute on Contemplative Teaching and Learning. It promotes awareness of self and others by infusing classroom life and teaching with experiential mindfulness practices.

This notion of cultivating the whole person is, I believe, what we used to mean by a "good education".

There is a definite feeling among innovative educators that we need to find our way back to it.

One of the Garrison Institute's board members, Mark Wilding, in a recent discussion with educators, said, "A great deal of what we see in education at the moment reflects an underlying attitude of 'basic badness.' At least in the United States, many educators are crying out for a new spirit of wholeness and inspiration. That is why people want to become educators in the first place."

London-based Canadian Tessa Watt, the author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide, and coordinator of the Awake in the World festival, reports that young school children in Vancouver are being taught to begin their day with a few minutes of mindfulness practice. "They draw pictures of their brains and talk about which parts are used in processing their emotional reactions," she says.

On the country's other, Atlantic coast is the innovative Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia, also inspired by the mediation tradition of the same name. The school openly states that the heart of what is offered is teaching and experiencing "confidence in unconditional goodness for everyone."

Would an approach like that have made a difference to my friend in Sri Lanka, and to the country's continuing pain - this month a mosque was attacked by a Buddhist mob? We have no definitive way of knowing, and a multitude of factors are involved.

But there may well be a relationship between aggression that develops in later years and the early experience of young people in schools.

"When children are raised in an environment that does not encourage basic goodness and self-worth, their sense of self-identity becomes fragile and confused," says Sakyong Mipham - spiritual heir of Naropa University founder Chögyam Trungpa - in his book The Shambhala Principle. "This imbalance leads to unhappiness and aggression such as bullying, which naturally begins to affect society."

This is a global conversation. It is not only questioning the world's educational systems: it is pointing to the necessity to nuture the innate intelligence already present in even the youngest of minds.