Monthly Archives: February 2015

True grit? Whose job is it to build resilience and character?


This is the text of a talk I gave as part of an excellent and interesting panel at the London Festival of Education, 28th February 2015, some of the words below might be different to those uttered!

To paraphrase Mary Shelley:

“It may…be judged indecent in me to come forward on this occasion; but when I see a fellow-creature about to perish through the cowardice of her pretended friends, I wish to be allowed to speak, that I may say what I know of… character [and who should build it.]”

We can’t even agree on the colour of a dress let alone what traits we should instil in every human being!

Whose job is it to make us gritty who can build a modern Jerusalem from our unpleasant character?

What about the Daily Mail? Yes…

The Daily Mail reported that ‘Head transplants’ will be possible in 2 years time.
The Guardian and the Independent somewhat weirdly reported it as ‘Full body transplants’ in 2 years time. Isn’t that one person gets into bed and another gets out?

We are in the world of ‘what works’ and I would wager a transplant of the head or body would make a difference to your character… and your resilience…

This would be done on the NHS, perhaps they can build our character…

Is it a body transplant or a head transplant and where does your character lie in this moment of scientific breakthrough? I mean do I donate my head or my body? I need to know, it makes a huge difference to my after death experience…

If the health service were responsible for building character you could get a head transplant on demand! I’ve got a shite character I need a new one! “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia?!? Or, at least, Alvin Stardust…?” Or Spock! Yes! We need logic! Science should tell us all we cry…! An MRI scan will show how to improve character.

But is this a search for truth about character or pragmatic instrumentalism ? What works is our cry! Not what is wise…

In the end your character will no longer be your responsibility. I fear it will be the duty of the school and its scientific approach to your well being.

The DfE will hold competitions to award character cash… A committee holed up somewhere in the DfE set up to pronounce on what ‘characteristics of character’ are wanted in the 21st century?

And the two worst traits of education come together: Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker.

Scientific managerialism: Oh education as a ‘system’

Character traits will be written on tablets of sto… No, written on tablets: iPads and the like where they will be sent over wires and wireless (nice to see that word making a comeback) to schools where they will be ignored until Ofsted say they will be reporting on the ‘characteristics of character’ in which case schools will suddenly bring in character education programmes and these will be ‘proven to deliver measurable characteristics of new improved character’ which will be added to the school’s big data:  progress 8 exam subjects and progress 8 virtue characteristics…

Instead of teachers teaching we will have education employees ‘delivering’ and the cost will be to the human relationships that underpin any school. Character seen as separate to education and something to be built. School as community replaced with a sales model: selling exam grades, ‘what works’ to ensure higher grade returns, and great character: competition driving education away from morality, from humanity and ethical concerns. At the heart of this the teacher is reduced to a frontline functionary

And we will be disappointed when we look upon our creations…

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? … I am solitary and abhorred.” – Frankenstein Pity the poor pupil who has their character messed with and hastily cobbled together by a committee of the virtuous sipping red wine and munching goose liver…

Grit and Resilience have replaced Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light

A child will be a test tube, no longer a moral agent for their own life they will be prodded and nudged into becoming the finished article: The person of good character. As the rest of the day is filled with exciting lessons with iPads, we will have ultra efficient ‘mindfulness’ – to counteract your mobile device with its images of sex and Jihad – 3 minutes of mindfulness a day will calm you! We have the research evidence to prove it!
Pupils will get their character certificate detailing all the good character points they have accrued throughout their schooling. At 18 years of age they will have arrived and be suitable for Russell Group Universities, Oxbridge and later to work at HSBC, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph…

Those that fail will be expected to re-sit ‘character’ for eternity so that they might value resilience.

The instrumental desire to make education of character have some use – means that we have to define and measure its usefulness and we get lost in a language and a science of ‘utility’ where measures measure what is deemed to be useful to measure but as Hannah Arendt asked: “What use is use?”

And when we have measured and realised that the bits of character we have decided to value and have cobbled together in our young Frankensteins amount to naught but a can of beans…

“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.”

It is the role of the arts to articulate what it is to be human and open up areas for reflection… To not ‘build’ but to inform character… dismiss the arts and have a curriculum that is all STEM and no flower then of course character is diminished. Like a life without love. BUT WE KNOW THIS! A committee coming up with ersatz character graphs and character self reflection toolkits are an abomination! It is no-one’s job to build character, it is part of life itself! It is as though the phrase ‘knowledge is power’ has been set up as a falsehood. Knowledge about humanity as a set of empirically measured definitions will not come to be the mark of good character rather this will be the destruction of character itself. Because this determination of what knowledge is valuable… silences the very knowledge – the unknown unknowns that can help us most – mystery, magic, the spiritual, the emotional, the liminal…

and education can return to its purpose: a discussion about who am i and who are we?

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: Betwixt and Between


“I’m wild again, beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I…”

Oh to be wild again, beguiled again, a child again… bothered, bewildered – the state when ambiguity, uncertainty takes over… Drinking brandy, falling in and out of love, full of foolish charms, not quite asleep… Schroedinger’s catnap… a place where you might be “burned a lot” might be where you “learned a lot… So hard to bear…”

True difficulty, the desirable sublime moment in teaching and learning when the full horror of not knowing what is happening to one has taken over… The student is but betwixt. The teacher has bewitched them. The student, the outsider thrown from the world they knew towards a world they don’t; in slow motion falling with full gothic horror into the dark abyss. And teacher, you threw them, pushed them, deliberately, delicately and sometimes violently… And you enjoy it. They hate you for it… for now…

This liminal state is essential for learning.

Liminality, drawn from the Latin: ‘līmen’ – ‘threshold’ a place between two states – this place of purgatory. In trivial terms the space between grammar and rhetoric… and the state of being betwixt – this dialectical state where voices confuse and confound. Here the structure of grammar is either unmade or is not yet understood and the child is taken from certainty into disorder in order to ensure assimilation into a world of informed free thought where they will send out probes into the global village. How to be initiated into the conversation of mankind? We need our teacher. The teacher as kindly benefactor, as well as an odious Shaman taking the class out into the night where the students dance in the dark… but not with Springsteen…

The process of education as coming of age – from putting away childish things to the donning of the robes of adulthood is also cut from this cloth: The grammar of the child’s own life is slowly, deliberately, upset (whether in a child or teacher centred way it is still upset…) ch-ch-ch changed and through that process we are lads insane, falling many times to the floor…

Dazed and confused…

So don’t talk of grit or resilience… teacher… you upset the applecart, don’t blame the child. You took them there, you ensured they stared into the abyss… you have to deal with it; it is part of the ritual.

Workload: A Load Off My Mind


In order to reduce workload the Government has decided to do nothing to reduce workload.

This will come as a relief to many hard pressed, end of tether teachers, who were fearing free time to spend with their friends and family as they haven’t seen them for so long except in a drunken stupour they have forgotten how to hold a decent conversation with them.

The document: ‘Make workload not war’ has declared that Ofsted et al will set about reducing the number of pages of many documents that teachers don’t read anyway in order to ensure that everything is swept under the carpet (sponsored by Harris) for many years to come.

Mike Wilshaw said: “blah blah blah…”



Ofsted judges schools to be 1,2,3,4 (‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Bloody Awful, Sort it Out! (Inadequate)). Many school leaders, teachers, children and parents baulk at this, knowing full well the system is flawed and that a number or an equivalent word cannot reflect the complexity of what a school does. We all know, full well: ‘We Are Not a Number, We Are A Free School’ – And the desire to reduce the school to a number – simple information for simple people turns us into prisoners of a system that none of us truly understands but all remain tied to.


Management judge a teacher’s teaching to be 1, 2, 3, or 4 or even 5 or SIX! Many school leaders, teachers and their children and parents, yes teachers have lives too, baulk at this, knowing full well the system is flawed and that a number or equivalent word cannot reflect the complexity of what a teacher does, we all know, deep down: ‘I Am Not a Number, I Am A Free Teacher’ – And the desire to reduce the teacher to a number – simple information for simple people turns him or her into a prisoner of a system that none of us truly understand but all remain tied to.


Teachers judge children’s work to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, SIX, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, G; Minus or Plus or Star or a Gold Star, Well Done Sticker, Have a Sweet… Many school leaders, teachers, children and their parents baulk at this, knowing full well the system is flawed and that a letter or equivalent number cannot reflect the complexity of what a pupil does, we all know, deep down: ‘I Am Not a Number, I Am A Free Child’ – And the desire to reduce the Child’s work to grades is but simple information for simple people and turns him or her into a prisoner of a system that none of us truly understand but all remain tied to.

What if?

We used dialogue to explain and question and encourage and divulge and dispute and disagree and agree and wonder and think and try to reflect complexity

not for the ease of bureaucracy

but for the sake of humanity…

And rather than gaming, protecting, copying, lying, covering up, resting on our laurels, arrogance or depression the system might







Really free schools.