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This morning I went to a debate, held by the Young Foundation and Relate at the RSA,  on whether schools should teach social, emotional and other skills alongside academic subjects, and I wondered how far the debate might be pushed in the direction of valuing such skills as much as if not more than academic ones.

This morning I went to a debate, held by the Young Foundation and Relate at the RSA,  on whether schools should teach social, emotional and other skills alongside academic subjects, and I wondered how far the debate might be pushed in the direction of valuing such skills as much as if not more than academic ones.

The consensus on the panel was generally that schools should - indeed must - take account of children's wider context and emotional life, not only so that they can learn at school, but so that they can deploy what they learn in order to get through life, gain employment and generally lead fulfilled existences.

There was some contention about the danger of squeezing out knowledge in this equation and much rebuttal to the tune of skills and knowledge not being separable - that one requires the other in any sane system. The tension seems to revolve not around a difference in what people want - rounded, happy, capable, knowledgeable, culturally aware young people - but in the analysis of why we are not there yet. Is it because we have a system still obsessed with unconnected content and knowledge for its own sake, or is it because we have an educational establishment obsessed with well being and self esteem?

Either way, much of the tenor of the conversation related to social and emotional skills as remedial features of schooling - they are something that schools need to teach because many students don't get these things at home and so they cannot succeed academically. Those from affluent backgrounds probably don't need such provision and are already free to excel at the things that schools do anyway such as academic knowledge, cognitive skills, sports and the arts.

But should we be being more ambitious than this? Social and emotional skills might be important to underpin and make worthwhile academic excellence, but where is the emphasis on developing excellence in the social and emotional skills as an end in themselves? Surely a sane, balanced society wants to develop and reward those who can understand, empathise, work with and influence other people?

The ageing population and looming crisis in social care means that we will soon be needing large numbers of people who are capable of caring first and foremost - from all backgrounds, and of all academic abilities.

Given this, just for fun, imagine for a second an education system that selects for further study based on a child's social and emotional skills - on their ability to work with or on behalf of others, regardless of their academic ability. A system in which academic ability might be brought to bear as a supporting factor in job applications, to provide employers with additional information about a person but that excellence in social and emotional skills are what people are looking for. A system in which the children of professional parents would need to prove their ability to relate to people in order to access qualification for entry into the caring professions, and young carers who develop a deep ability for self sacrifice and patience are rewarded for this (rather than for attainment in subjects) with access to a diverse range of educational opportunities, including academic.

The apparent absurdity of such a model shows how deeply we are wedded to valuing a very narrow - albeit important and valuable - form of human capability in our formal education system. And perhaps this is the right thing for schools to be focussing on. But I can't help thinking that we need to be honest about the limited view of a person that any qualifications gained in such a system gives us.

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