In India, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has recently instructed schools to appoint “life skills trainers,” having decided that the provision of a wholly academic curriculum may not be serving students well, and that important aspects of their holistic development may currently be insufficiently addressed. This decision apparently follows revelations that whilst many students leave school with good examination results, and are able to demonstrate effective skills in mathematics, reading and language that all employers value, there are many who lack the most fundamental abilities of being able to relate effectively to others, or to respond to tasks requiring team work or the acceptance of responsibility.
For many teachers, and I suspect particularly for those who have spent a significant part of their careers attempting to support children described as having special educational needs, the suggestion that we should prioritise social development alongside academic learning will not be anything new. But sadly it appears that there are some teachers who continue to regard their role simply as filling children with subject knowledge and cramming them to pass examinations.
Before I am (yet again) accused of being an unreformed child of the sixties, a touchy feely liberal, let me say that I am wholly in accord with the idea that we should encourage children to strive for academic excellence. Indeed, it would seem hypocritical for those of us who have spent a significant part of our lives as students, working towards various pieces of paper to affirm our “academic credentials,” and have subsequently made a career out of supporting others to do the same, to deny the importance of this route. However, I suspect that like me, you have met numerous “well educated,” highly qualified individuals who seem to lack the social and emotional abilities to function effectively within the workplace, or wider society. How well are students served if we enable them to gain high level qualifications but fail to enable them to work with these efficiently because of their social ineptitudes?
In many ways, the formal recognition by the CBSE of the necessity to deliver social education is to be welcomed. The acknowledgement of the need to ensure that all students leave school having developed skills related to effective communication, empathy and interpersonal relationships; three of the areas seen as currently in deficit, will hopefully enable teachers to become more aware of the importance of a curriculum that is much broader than that on offer in many Indian schools. I do, however have some concerns about the current proposals and how the changes in schools may be managed.
The appointment of a “life skills trainer,” whilst emphasising the importance of this commitment, may be a counterproductive approach to addressing the issue. Just as the history teacher teaches history, and the Hindi teacher focuses upon the provision of a language, will it become the case that the life skills trainer is the only teacher in a school responsible for improving the social and emotional skills of the students? Surely this is an area of such importance that all teachers should assume responsibility for ensuring that their students develop the necessary social competences to be able to function effectively both within and beyond the classroom environment?
There are, of course, parallels here with the role in many schools of the special educator. It is laudable to ensure that there is someone in school with the knowledge, skills and motivation to co-ordinate work in support of students with learning difficulties, but if this encourages all other teachers to abdicate their responsibilities in this area, it may have the opposite effect to that intended. It will be important to monitor the work of the life skills trainers over the coming years, but even more critical to consider how all teachers develop those attitudinal and pedagogical approaches that encourage the social development of their students.
The stance adopted by the CBSE has excellent intentions and should certainly be welcomed. This may well be an important step towards the provision of a more inclusive curriculum. As with all policy initiatives of this type, the movement from sound motivation to positive impact will present an interesting challenge for all schools.