As British seven year-olds take national tests, what does Buddhism have to say about the ethical core of education?

Friday is my son’s seventh birthday, and after the cards and presents he’ll go off to school where like thousands of other children, he’ll be sitting his first national test. Of course, he’s unaware of the debate about whether tests are helpful ways to monitor progress and raise standards, or else an imposition that constrains teachers and puts kids under pressure.

As a Buddhist I encourage my son to develop the attitudes that Buddhism prizes. Some Buddhist traditions emphasise academic-style learning while others are wary of intellectual understanding; but they agree that education should include ethical training because a child’s outlook will affect everything that follows. In fact, the whole Buddhist path is described as a form of training with moral development at its root.

In one Buddhist scripture, the Buddha comes across a group of boys who are fishing and asks them, ‘Do you dislike pain yourselves?’ That sets the tone for how Buddhists approach ethics. The Buddhist ethical precepts telling people to avoid killing, lying and so on, are described as ‘training principles’ that invite us to adopt the underlying attitude the rule expresses. The Buddha doesn’t tell the boys off, even though he believed it’s unethical to cause suffering for your own enjoyment. Instead, he encourages them to empathise with the fish’s distress and connect imaginatively with the principle that actions have consequences.

This is an experiential form of learning. It doesn’t contradict a more academic approach, but it prioritises the capacity for ethical reflection, emotional sensitivity and self-awareness. They underlie the whole process of learning and extend beyond formal education to life as a whole.

I rejoice when I see those priorities reflected in the education system, but I accept that, in the first instance, they’re my responsibility. When my son gobbles food or gets impatient with technology, I recognise my own tendency to do the same things. His actions mirror back to me my own states of mind, my behaviour and my ethical practice. I also sense my capacity to influence him positively by modeling the qualities I want him to learn

Whether or not tests should happen is a matter of political debate; but for now they’re a fact of life for both children and parents. My responsibility, as I see it, is to approach the tests with patience and kindness. Perhaps that will help my son do the same, and perhaps, in a small way, that’s part of the training.

The Kumara Sutta