You can’t teach schoolkids ‘resilience’ when they’re micromanaged every day | Richard Godwin

The education secretary wants to ‘toughen up’ pupils, but that means less structure, not more

Don’t tell the Conservative leadership candidates, but the education secretary, Damian Hinds, is holding a brainstorming session. He wants ideas on how we can toughen up British schoolchildren. Clearly he knows something we don’t about the future.

“To truly prepare for adult life we need to make sure our young people build character and resilience,” he announced last week as he launched a new C&R initiative – as it will doubtless be shortened to in education circles. Yes, GCSEs and A-levels are important, Hinds said – but in 10 years’ time, exam results will be a “distant memory”. (Presumably Sats and Pisa rankings, too : the whole quasi-mathematical surveillance matrix that Hinds and his predecessors have painstakingly constructed for our children these past few decades?)

Character and resilience stay with you for life and are crucial for “social mobility”. So he’s launching a review to give young people “unstoppable confidence” and teach them to cope with the “challenges life brings”: £30,000 student debt; education funding slashed by £7bn since 2011, that sort of thing.

Hinds’ own initial suggestions are fairly predictable for a Tory minister: competitive sport, Duke of Edinburgh awards. But doubtless Dominic Raab and Esther McVey will feel they could do better. Fire tennis balls at them? Strangle their pets? Or perhaps we could select child representatives from 12 UK districts, drop them into a reality TV studio with a cache of weapons – and then film their fight to the death.

OK, I’m teasing – it helps build character, Dominic! Clearly, the Department for Education is responding to legitimate concerns, and few parents would disagree that character is, erm, a good thing to possess, especially in times as fraught as these.

Which helps explain why “resilience” has become a 2019 buzzword among a certain tech/business/lifestyle elite. “Resilience isn’t just about toughening up,” explains a recent report on the “resilience macrotrend” from a prominent consumer insights agency. “It’s about relearning, rebooting and recalibrating brands, businesses, corporations and, more importantly, ourselves.”

Clearly that’s a concern for people who want to sell trainers. But resilience is also crucial when it comes to the welfare of our children, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt takes aim at a culture of “safetyism” and “helicopter parenting” – arguing that it has helped spawn a generation of mentally unwell children obsessed with micro-aggressions, unable to deal with the harsh realities of life for themselves. You might call it the snowflake hypothesis. One hears of enlightened Silicon Valley parents encouraging their straight-A children to deliberately get an F – just once! – so that they at least know what failure feels like.

There are various studies that appear to back up these insights, too. One paper published last year in the journal Developmental Psychology found that two-year-olds whose mothers intervened more in their play ended up less emotionally resilient than children who were left to figure stuff out by themselves. “The problem here really is that if you don’t learn skills to self-regulate, how can you self-regulate when you leave the home?” said Dieter Wolke, professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at the University of Warwick, about the study. “In a way it is a form of abusiveness – taking this opportunity away from children.”

I think about this sort of thing a lot in relation to my own son. I imagine most parents do. “Remember, they’re only yours to borrow,” a wise friend warned me just before my son was born – and it was one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever received. It captures that bittersweet paradox of parenting: the more successful you are at raising an independent child, the more obsolete you will become. It is always a temptation to stand behind him, so I can catch him when he falls out of the tree, or to step in when I hear him being a dick with his friends. It makes me feel useful, too. But more often than not, the lessons he will learn from seeing these things through himself are longer-lasting.

Still, one of the reasons I think about this a lot is because, clearly, resilience is needed to make it through an education system that encourages children to see their worth in terms of grades achieved, hoops jumped and boxes ticked. Successive education secretaries have seen to it that every movement is circumscribed and assessed. Few teachers are happy with this. I suspect Hinds isn’t either – but his remedies don’t inspire much confidence.

He suggests “structured” youth programmes and “uniformed groups” like Scouts and cadets are what’s needed. But what children tend to lack is unstructured time, time that is their own in which to play, explore, fight, climb, run, dream, fool around, figure things out themselves. That’s partly to do with “safetyism”, but it’s also to do with a top-down tendency to micromanage. When it comes to competitive sport, the major impediment is not a want of character, but of outdoor space. The great Thatcherite project of selling off school playing fields has done far more damage than any parenting fashions: 10,000 transferred to the private sector between 1979 and 1997, with a further 215 lost since 2010, as schools have struggled to cope with funding cuts.

As for whether character is the crucial factor in “social mobility” – well it’s true that a handful of exceptional individuals do sometimes succeed in unimaginably difficult circumstances. But it’s striking how many people of dreadful character and deplorable imagination remain immobile in the upper ranks of the Tory party, so clearly the reverse hypothesis doesn’t hold. If today’s young people do seem more angry and uppity and unwilling to put up with them – perhaps that’s simply a perfectly rational response.

• Richard Godwin is a freelance journalist


Richard Godwin

The GuardianTramp

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