Education should nurture kindness and compassion – attributes robots can’t replace

Janet Downs's picture

What should schools concentrate on?  Building confidence?  Encouraging ‘grit’ and resilience?  Developing ‘character’?  Focusing on academic qualifications?  Preparing pupils for future employment?

Ah – employability.  It’s in the news again following an Edge Foundation report into how schools are developing ‘real employability skills’.   These are important, yes, I’ve long advocated an updated TVEI* programme in all schools.     But what is so often forgotten in discussions about work-related skills is that they are qualities which are equally valuable outside the world of work.  The Edge Foundation recognises this:

‘…school-leaver attributes represent more than simply “employability skills”.  Rather, they describe a range of skills, attributes, attitudes and competence that have a relevance to the workplace as well [as in] higher education and wider family life.’  (My emphasis)

The response by the Department for Education missed this important point.  Depressingly, it focussed on the report’s criticism about a narrowed curriculum caused by excessive emphasis on GCSEs and academic A levels.

GSCEs are the gold standard qualification at age 16 and a passport to further study and employability…’ 

It’s right that GCSEs can act as stepping stones to post-16 education – that’s where their value lies.  But they’re not ‘gold standard’.  Few countries have such high stakes exams at 16 and if they do then they are fewer in number and not, repeat NOT, used to judge schools.  Much better, as I argued recently, to move to graduation at 18 via multiple routes. 

But even these important skills may not be enough.  The Edge Foundation lists such things as problem solving, communication, self-management and teamwork backed up with confidence, drive, resilience and reflection.  But these attributes could equally be demonstrated by a career criminal as by a diligent citizen.

Two qualities are needed to complement these skills.  These, argues Luke Richardson, a secondary English teacher and part-time MA student at Nottingham Trent University, are ‘kindness and compassion’.    In a world where robots could replace ‘40% of the world’s current jobs’ including professional ones, kindness and compassion rise in value:

‘…people will still be important, he [ Kai-Fu Lee, author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the new world order”] says, not because of their knowledge, but because of their humanity.

But how is humanity demonstrated in English schools today?  Stressed teachers struggling with excessive workload; pupils forced to drop important subjects well before age 16 to concentrate on formal, academic exams; SEND pupils being increasingly let down and young people made to feel failures because they didn’t achieve at least five ‘good’ GCSEs.

It’s time to reclaim education for the sake of our children and young people.  And that means invigorating it with a strong dose of kindness and compassion. 


*Technical and Vocational Education Initiative rolled out in English schools in the eighties to nineties.  It did much to raise the profile of generic vocational education and work-related skills.  All undermined when funding stopped and when Michael Gove, who loathed careers advisors, said schools didn’t have to provide work experience. 

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 13/02/2019 - 12:04

You make very good points that do not appeared even to have occurred to the DfE ideologues, let alone being considered.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 13/02/2019 - 13:41

The DfE, as ever, fails to consider any alternative to its politically skewed dystopian vision of education. Shameful! None of the points made by Janet have been considered by the department because it has no concept that any public education system worthy of the title should begin its mission to educate young people with a clear vision and concomitant aims. This has never been considered in all the tedious decades of education reform we have suffered. This is why what we have now threatens the wellbeing of our young people. In the world they have fashioned, ever increasing emphasis has been placed on accountability before quality of education and employability before a recognition that that which undermines our humanity, threatens to destroy it.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.