Have we got the character to educate for character?

Watch out, the bureaucrats might get hold of character education, the world of data, clip boards and stern faces might be looking at children to judge how much grit, character and sheer damn resilience they have. It’s the resilience of teachers that astounds me, as soon as September has nearly left us the autumnal guffaws of initiative-itis have begun. Can the teachers put up with this? Judged on ‘results’, performance paid, doing their damnedest to satisfy the lowest demands of big data, teachers are being encouraged to take their eye off the ball, yes get the kids their GCSEs and A levels (because the kids won’t) and then when you think it’s all fine and dandy, that you’ve satisfied ALIS (ALIS, who the f*** is ALIS?) they now demand that your kids have karacter with a kapital k.

Nicky Morgan said today that:

“I have added a fifth priority to the department, because academic standards are of course critical, [also we] want to have young people who develop as well-rounded individuals.” This includes: “emphasising character, resilience, grit… all…things which I think probably many of our professionals in the teaching workforce already work so hard on [this is] preparing children for employment, and the importance of activities such as sport, creativity, debating and the list goes on, ways in which schools will develop the young people they are educating.”

The first four priorities are: ‘best possible schools, best possible workforce (teachers etc.), academic standards and protecting vulnerable young people.’ So the fifth, well rounded individuals, sits astride these aims literally as an afterthought, an addition to the others but should it be the first priority, the source of success for all the others? Or is it too wishy washy and open to interpretation to have been mentioned at all?

Earlier this term I had the honour to talk to the staff of Uppingham School about the trivium and the liberal arts and today the headmaster of Uppingham, Richard Harman, who is currently the chair of the HMC wrote in the Times about how Britain’s independent schools are some of the best schools in the world because of “…our insistence on a liberal, holistic education for children; we are not interested in narrow, sterile, performance measures.” Some people who know the independent sector might remark that Harman is being a bit disingenuous here because many independent schools care very much about exam results and ‘value added’ but his central point is a salient one: can a world of narrow data measurement exist alongside a holistic education? In his address to the HMC conference today Harman made the following observations: “Nurturing intellectual, emotional and spiritual awareness; developing character, creativity and critical thinking is the DNA of HMC schools.” That: “Academic success and excellent exam results are necessary but not sufficient.” He added an important rejoinder to Government: “We can’t solve all of society’s ills – education is part of the answer but economic, family and social policy matter too.” And he reiterated the point he made in the Times: “Our schools remain uniquely placed to insist on the vital importance of a liberal, holistic education for children in the 21st century.” This is good stuff, I believe that a well rounded education does not split into an academic curriculum with some great extra curricular bolted on for ‘character growing’ purposes. Harman is right, it is by ensuring the DNA of the school is focused throughout on developing the whole child that can make the real difference and he is also right that it is not just the school’s job. A school is not an island of virtue in a troubled sea, it can only do its work well if the society in which it is situated also enables a rich cultural, academic, spiritual, emotional and creative life for all in and out of school.

Can the performance measures currently in place help this process? Probably not, they are the work of a committee rather than the committed. Must state schools chase figures first or work on the DNA and hope the figures follow? It is my fear that they will have to prove everything is happening with evidence upon evidence and therefore will take the easiest way out, in other words some schools will decide that it will be in extra curricular work where ‘character’ is formed, and the grit of teachers will be sorely tested as their every waking hour will be dedicated to nurturing the imponderable. The effect of extra curricular is unmeasurable but it can be measured by tick list, numbers and time… Look what we’ve done: Ski trip, 100 kids 1 week, Theatre trips, 400 kids, 20 evenings, Football tournaments etc. etc. etc.. But something will give and it will probably be the character of the staff struggling to ensure that exams are passed, lessons prepared, work marked and the trip to stonehenge organised. As for the kids they will expect to be led through exams and then have their hobbies provided on a plate, organised lives all one step removed from the education they should be getting.

In Trivium 21c I write about how to ensure the DNA of schools can help the development of the whole child, please let’s resist unimaginative approaches to Nicky Morgan’s fifth priority, let’s show we have the character to educate for character. A holistic education is possible, just ensure you start from the right place.

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