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Education: Philosophy

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the use of philosophy to improve the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills at all educational levels.

My Lords, the Government agree that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are important. Our knowledge-rich national curriculum stimulates these skills in the context of solid subject content. Cognitive science suggests that knowledge and skills are partners, and that attempts to teach skills without knowledge fail because they run counter to the way our brains work. While philosophy is not on the national curriculum, schools have the flexibility to teach it if they want to.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. It presents philosophy as a voluntary subject—one available to few but not to all. Given the quality of our public life and public debate, does she not think that enabling people to see both sides of an argument and to take a philosophical approach could be a step towards improving the quality of public life?

The noble Baroness is right that philosophy is not on the national curriculum, but citizenship is. It equips pupils with exactly the skills she sets out—namely, to research and interrogate evidence, to debate and evaluate viewpoints, to present reasoned arguments and to take informed action.

Does the Minister agree with the work of the Philosophy Foundation, which is already working in our prisons and schools to sharpen people’s thinking? We are lost if our children do not know how to think correctly.

I am not familiar with the work of the Philosophy Foundation, but I absolutely welcome all those charities working in our prisons and our schools to support our children.

My Lords, is it not significant that philosophy is a compulsory subject in French lycée and the basic structures of French education? Is that not reflected in the different levels of public service in both countries? I declare an interest: my wife is French.

It is difficult to make direct comparisons. I would certainly say that the level of public service in this country, both formally and informally through all our charities and volunteers, is of the highest standard. Many of the basic elements included in the teaching of philosophy are in not only our citizenship curriculum but our religious education curriculum.

My Lords, when I was at a French primary school many years ago, philosophy was taught at all stages in French schools, as the noble Lord just said. I do not think it did us any harm. With today’s students apparently really reluctant to discuss anything with which they disagree, might it be time to introduce philosophy into schools to broaden minds? It could be difficult to find teachers, but surely the plethora of PPE graduates coming into Parliament could be encouraged to go back and teach one of their many subjects in schools?

In a serious vein, we know that our schools have tremendous responsibilities in terms of catching up and supporting children, particularly disadvantaged children, following the pandemic’s impact on them. The Government have made a commitment not to change the national curriculum. We need to make sure that the curriculum works for our children.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that my daughter is studying philosophy at university. Much as I welcome the thrust of the Question, philosophy is of course open to all students who seek to read it at university. I note that the Philosophy Foundation says that students, by studying philosophy, develop analytical, critical and problem-solving capabilities, so are we not lucky to have a Prime Minister who studied philosophy at university rather than, say, law?

My Lords, I think I have an interest to declare as the only surviving professional philosopher in the House. When I joined your Lordships’ House there were four of us, but the others are no longer with us. So much for the interest. My question is: does the Minister think that what we might call the A-levelisation of philosophy teaching in schools has, on balance, been beneficial, or not?

If the House will forgive me, I am not sure I am entirely familiar with the term “A-levelisation”, but what I do know is that many more students are studying philosophy—almost twice as many in our universities—than are taking the A-level, so whatever we are doing at A-level is equipping our students to choose philosophy as an option later on.

Is the Minister aware that many primary schools in England follow a course and teach philosophy for children and that they achieved some very interesting results? Would she be interested in meeting some of these practitioners to discuss how this functions in a primary setting?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet the teachers that the noble Baroness recommends. She will be aware that the disciplines of critical thinking are throughout our curriculum, including in the early years and foundation stages.

My Lords, it is not only about critical thinking; we need to have a place where those ideas can be exchanged, which is about free speech. I understand that the University of Cambridge has recently appointed a philosophy professor, who is teaching classes in free speech. Does the Minister think this is something we need in all our universities, and should it start in our schools as well?

The right reverend Prelate will be aware of the legislation we were debating in Grand Committee only yesterday afternoon on the importance of free speech in our universities. The Government think that is of critical importance, as is academic freedom, but of course, it needs to start in our schools, and I have seen many fantastic examples of teachers engaging with children and giving them those skills and the confidence to debate.

My Lords, I should declare an interest as I have a degree in philosophy—but I am not sure what that says about the value of such a thing. I may no longer be very familiar with synthetic a priori or logical positivism, but what I do know is that philosophy teaches you never to be sure that you are right. Does the Minister agree that our public discourse and political culture could really do with a bit less certainty about rightness?

The noble Baroness makes a serious point, and there is an important balance to be struck in terms of leadership, sense of direction and the values on which that direction is based. But the openness to listen, change and adjust is needed.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with and support the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. In light of the deeply unwise comments by the Home Secretary in the other place, will the Minister and her department consider how to encourage the promotion of a cohesive society through critical thinking, for the well-being of our future young generations?

Research shows that having a consistent core curriculum and a consistent set of values, which we have in this country, are fundamental to making sure that our young people can connect and have a sense of mutual respect and understanding.

My Lords, in addition to the need to develop critical thinking, does the Minister agree that many children are held back by an inability to articulate arguments and to express themselves properly? Therefore, will she add her support to the many organisations that are encouraging public speaking, and debating in particular, in state schools?

I am absolutely delighted to add my support. The evidence on the value of oracy beyond simply public speaking is all important and very clear, and the department is working on it.

Following the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, should we not have more philosophers in this House, if for no other reason than we would be better at explaining why we exist?

Having once had the pleasure of having tea with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, I know that she is in another league in her ability to explain these complex things, but having a multidisciplinary House is probably a strong basis.