Private school pupils to take 'empathy lessons' after head accuses them of failing to care

Matt Broomfield
Andrew Halls of King's College School has previously accused privatedly-educated pupils of being 'bullish and charmless': wikimedia

The head teacher of one of Britain's top private schools is introducing lessons in empathy, claiming his pupils are isolated and uncaring.

Andrew Halls, head of King's College School, Wimbledon, blames a "toxic cocktail" of smartphone use, social media, divorce, a rise in day-care and a decline in outdoor play for increased "solitude and disconnection".

But Mr Halls himself has previously blamed the private school environment for producing "bullish and charmless" individuals, while experts in children's mental health point to neoliberal ideology and the ongoing economic crisis to explain a rising sense of isolation among young people.

Senior pupils at the exclusive south London school pay £20,400 a year in tuition fees, and it often appears in the top 10 nationwide for A-Level and International Baccalaureate results. One in three sixth-formers go on to Oxbridge.

Mr Halls told the Sunday Times he fears his high-achieving pupils are "becom[ing] locked in a world of incomprehension, with an increasingly two-dimensional understanding of other people, incapable of forming real relationships in the world of flesh and blood: like the Far East couple who let their own real-life baby die of neglect while they tended a ‘virtual’ baby on their computers”.

“Modern children are apparently more connected than ever before, but underlying the community of likes, Photoshopped pictures, shared Instagram obsessions is an empty wilderness of solitude and disconnection,” he said.

Writing for The Independent, however, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Jay Watts has argued that neoliberal society, rather than social media, is to blame for mental health problems and isolation among young people.

She said: "From birth, we are surrounded by ideals of successful personhood and the good life which we internalise. Our self-respect is thus indexed to how we are seen from outside. Social media is but a symptom of the root cause."

Clinical psychologist and academic Steve Melluish has similarly blamed the so-called "loneliness epidemic" on hyper-competitive late capitalist society.

Pupils at a school like King's are also less likely to suffer psychological isolation than their working-class peers. who are disproportionately affected by the mental health crisis among British children.

In one study of the crisis, academics from the University of East London write that young people from "lower income families... struggle to cope with the socioeconomic realities of ‘Austerity Britain’, whilst services that historically might have provided support... have been eroded by health sector cuts."

Mr Halls has previously alluded to this disparity, saying in 2014: "Some independent school children can asphyxiate the society they move in because their confidence is so bullish and charmless."

Alongside the "empathy lessons", the school will play host to an autumn conference of head teachers addressing the same concerns.

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