Friday, 24 October 2008

Relationship lessons, I don't think so

When I was at school things were pretty straightforward. At primary school it was reading, writing, sums and a bit of history, geography, plants and animals. Practical stuff everyone should know. After all, we were little children with an awful lot to learn. There was a sex education class at age 10 or 11, as I recall, a biology class really. No pretence of "this is something you might think of doing in the next couple of years", just "this is how it happens" in the same way we were taught that 9 x 12 = 108. They taught a fact, something we should know at that age. At grammar school the same pattern was followed with the addition of far more reasoning because that was needed if we were to develop our minds as far as possible.

At no stage was I subjected to the modern educational fetish of emotionalism. When I learned that crocodiles enjoy a dinner of raw wildebeest it did not occur to anyone that I should consider how the wildebeest felt about being held underwater until it was dead and then consumed. Its feelings will never stop a hungry crocodile from killing it and there is nothing I or any other human being can or should do to prevent nature taking its course.

On this week's Question Time someone asked about the government's proposal that children as young as five should be taught about human relationships. The question, and all the answers, presumed the proposal to be for such young children to be taught about sex but that is not my understanding. I believe they are proposing that little children at primary school should be taught about relationships and sex education will follow later. There seemed unanimity among the panel that teaching about relationships is appropriate and that made me ask what that means.

I can recall just a few specific events in my life up to the age of about 10. What I acknowledge is that principles and standards inculcated in me from my earliest days are with me still even though I cannot recall ever being taught them. This suggests to me that teaching esoteric concepts to young children must be done with great care because they will absorb the principles without question and use them as the foundation of how they live their lives and treat other people in the future. I do not, of course, ignore that a bad principle can be corrected. A child taught at home that stealing is acceptable can be persuaded at a later time that his parents were incorrect. Similarly a child taught that stealing is wrong can change his mind or be persuaded to change his mind when he is older. Nonetheless, if a principle is taught there is a high probability that it will be carried into later life. This means that we must be very careful about teaching principles of behaviour and, in particular, we must be careful to ensure that the principles we teach are sound and will serve the child as he or she goes through life. They should not be matters of current fashion which have not already stood the test of time as solid principles.

What is it that small children are to be taught? This has not yet been decided, the proposal to introduce the subject of relationships into the syllabus is just a proposal. So, what might they be taught? What principle is there that should be inculcated into little children to stand alongside the most important principle of all, namely, treat others as you would like them to treat you? I cannot see any underlying concept in the subject matter of relationships that is of sufficient importance as a foundation for life that it should be introduced as a matter of principle before children are old enough to understand what it really means.

We cannot ignore that the standards we teach small children are essentially based on the Ten Commandments and are taught because we accept them as being a good foundation for life. Yet we must not pretend that we know them to be good standards because of our own experiences. They are a body of fundamental principles of behaviour that have been tested by time and proven to be worthy of transmission to the next generation. That is what justifies them being pushed into children's minds before they develop critical faculties. History proves they are sound and we want the next generation to follow them so, in effect, we brainwash children with them.

I would rather leave brainwashing where it is and concentrate on ensuring the little darlings can read, write and do basic maths. After all, if something is to be added to the syllabus, something else must be discarded. With levels of practical literacy and numeracy still worryingly low despite ever increasing sums being spent on compulsory education it is, to my mind, plainly more important to teach children the three Rs.

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