Category Archives: Character Education

If Teachers Want Confident Pupils They Should Teach Them to Communicate Well

The Sutton Trust report ‘Life Lessons, Improving essential life skills for young people’ (Oct 2017) makes interesting reading. There is much to discuss within its pages. One of the things that stood out for me is the need to teach written and spoken communication ‘skills’* including debate, argument, speech and the art of conversation.

When asked to rank motivation, communication, confidence, self control, ability to cope with stress into a rank order employers put motivation first, closely followed by communication ‘skills’ whereas teachers put a great deal of emphasis on confidence with communication ‘skills’ way behind in third place.

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In the Oxford English Dictionary confidence is described as:

A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

This implies that confidence arises from something rather than being a prerequisite for something. It is a quality gained from experience. It is not the same as self-esteem or arrogance, confidence can only come from a place in which one has experienced something and knows one can cope. Confidence comes from knowing one can do. Confidence that one can take a further step is due to having the prerequisite ability and knowledge  so that a risk is worth taking – that everything is in place for them so to do.

Why did the teachers surveyed rate confidence so highly and the employers much less so? Maybe the term is meaningless as it can have a wide interpretation as to what it means in practice. But if we put this doubt to one side I feel there might be something worrying about the disparity between the two. Maybe the employers feel that someone who can communicate well can move into a new area (i.e. a job) learn about it and be able to communicate with their colleagues and customers effectively growing in confidence as they learn more. Whereas the teachers feel it is confident children who are more able to learn new stuff.

Yet we have already seen confidence comes from learning rather than the other way round.

And some of the areas of knowledge teachers can teach children successfully is how to communicate eloquently and beautifully. I would be much happier if the graph showed the majority of teachers rating communication above confidence. Way above confidence. Because teachers can teach rhetoric, the whys and wherefores of debate and the knowledge necessary for a pupil to know what they are talking about. Teachers can teach knowledge and get their pupils to really grapple with that knowledge through argument and conversation. And through this children’s appreciation in their abilities will grow. In other words they will become more confident because of good teaching.

The urgency comes in with the realisation that there is a social justice angle to this.

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70% of the least disadvantaged get access to debating, whereas this falls to just over 30% for the most disadvantaged. Importantly, this is about the provision, it doesn’t reflect the take up. The Sutton Trust estimate that:

Young people in the most disadvantaged schools are 13 percentage points more likely to not be involved in any extra-curricular activities than the least disadvantaged schools (45% compared to 32%).

And that take up in schools for extra curricular activities is difficult to judge accurately in the first place. They also suggest that pupils in ‘disadvantaged schools’ are less likely to debate in class and learn how to make speeches and, indeed, write those speeches. And yet it is by learning these essential academic skills that pupils can grow in confidence. Confidence – the life ‘skill’ that, apparently, teachers most value.

Wouldn’t it be great if pupils in ‘disadvantaged’ schools had access to the full range of academic opportunities that come from learning how to communicate their learning effectively?

The spoken word is one of the ways teachers can assess the quality of learning easily and efficiently. It would be a shame if another gap between rich and poor is one of eloquence and whether a pupil is able or unable to join in with the great conversations of our time with confidence.


*I use the word ‘skills’ advisedly in the context of the report calling them ‘skills’. One could argue that the art of communication is about knowing what and how. For e.g. one can learn the art of rhetoric – it is a body of knowledge.

Academic Education For All


German players seemed to have more to draw on as people than English counterparts; greater all round resources that helped them navigate tournaments and pressure points 

Jonathan Northcroft: interview with Frank Lampard, Sunday Times, May 28th 2017

In our great debates about education: vocational vs grammar, 21st Century skills for the jobs that don’t yet exist vs academic education, something always seems to be missed and that is an academic education is good for all.

As Frank Lampard explains in the interview:

You’ll benefit if you bring through players who are intelligent. The best players in the world are smart and clever on the pitch and you can’t tell me that’s not a well rounded thing.

Lampard, educated at Brentwood Independent school, feels he was fortunate to have had  a good education:

…not just maths and science, but life education – and these are big things that relate on the pitch. You see it how certain players hold themselves…

He sees it as a responsibility for all football clubs to cover – educate the youngsters especially those you pull out of school at 15/16… For those that don’t make it need a good education to fall back on and those that do make it need it to fall back on too. Part of Lampard’s history is his time at West Ham Football Club.

The academy of football set up by Ted Fenton at West Ham as the ‘Cafe Cassettari’ club, where social aspects such as welcoming and providing warm food, were expanded by Malcolm Allison:

…players would exchange views on the game and make tactical plans around the dinner table, illustrating their ideas with the use of salt and pepper pots. The culmination of those years of hard work, on and off the field, was the Second Division championship in 1958 – the springboard to great cup successes at a much higher level in the mid-60s … no one should underestimate the positive influence of Malcolm Allison’s earlier role in Hammers’ history 

West Ham Club History: John Hellier

This idea should be taken further. We should realise the benefit of players and trainees knowing about Shakespeare, Goethe, Germaine Greer, Beethoven, CLR James, Brendan Behan, Gaugin, Virginia Woolf, Boadicea, Euclid, Euripides, St Augustine and Confucius; the poetry of life gives backbone to the poetry on the pitch.

Whether you are an academy of football or an ‘ordinary’ academy or school, an academic education should be for all. We are all children of a sacred olive grove (Hekademia (Ἑκαδήμεια)) dedicated to the Athena, goddess of wisdom, that gave rise to our word academia and to Plato’s famous academy.

And our children should benefit from a life dedicated to Athena too.

Whether they are to be footballers or scientists, leaders or followers, down on their luck or lucky, an academic education will enrich all their lives.


Stop Fetishising Failure and Success


Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove


The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.


Schools and Freedom of Speech


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.




The Banality of Character Education


In her Essay on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt wrote that:

The nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Now, I’m not meaning to imply that bureaucrats are evil, but  looking at this quote, away from its context, is useful for what I wish to say about ‘Character Education’. By trying to make Character Ed a thing that can be taught explicitly, measured, reported on, with data collected and dispersed to all and sundry, it could be said that the very idea of ‘character’ is transmuted from being a collection of difficult to define human traits that might emerge over time, to that of a bureaucrat’s idea of character. They apply, what Theodore Dalrymple calls: ‘a thin veneer of science’ to make character part of the administrative machine: Let’s call something ‘Grit’; let’s define it, measure it, report on it and collect vast amounts of data to show that a child’s ‘grit’ score has increased by 7% over the past year and celebrate this. By doing this we dehumanise the subject.

Character, taken as a whole, can be talked about but in the way that someone might talk about art – what they like about some work and what they don’t, it is through the conversations of people by which we judge ourselves and each other. We change as we respond to our daily habits and our daily tribulations, and how we meet those imposters triumph and defeat, illness and wellness, love and despair, and when we give succour and need it for ourselves. Through all this our character builds, breaks and builds again. Give it a score, a flow chart or a graph and it’s no longer character, it is its opposite – it is the dehumanised picture of what someone with a measuring tape and a calculator thinks character is. It isn’t.

I have long argued that by teaching a rich thought-through curriculum, involving a wealth of experiences and a rich access to the arts and humanities, indeed, a good number of subjects taught by teachers who invest their pupils’ time in the pursuit of wisdom that ‘character’ is developed. Here is a video in which I argue this very thing in a debate at Policy Exchange. So, it was gratifying to read this piece by Paul Tough, author of ‘How Children Succeed’, in which he writes:

No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere… there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities* are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment**.

Can we make all schools life-affirming and avoid turning them into banal little offices run by petty bureaucrats?

*not sure he’s got this bit right, ‘non-cognitive’ is difficult to achieve…

**this bit is surely not right either, genetic influences play a large part too I expect…


Are Schools Exam Factories?


Are schools exam factories?

Take a look at a picture of a contemporary factory production line, how does the analogy pan out? Are the robots teachers? The products, children? The outcome, the exam? If a car factory makes cars, an exam factory makes exams, Pearson?

Well, no, the child must be the outcome, but not any colour as long as it’s black… Isn’t this the metaphor, the Fordist idea? These days factories churn out cars that are seemingly personalised for the customer… any colour as long as it suits your personal choice, different engines, seat coverings… and then the customer can add a smiley sun ‘smell nice’ to add to the character of their car…

Some car companies even cheat at exams…

The metaphor should not be exam factories, it should be ‘Child Factories’… Our factory child is clearly a child though seems different to other children, shaped around customer choice… and the customers? Parents? Or ‘Society’? Can we buy the product? What if we don’t want it, can we reject it to sit in a car lot for the rest of its days?

The robotic teachers all doing the same thing, day by day, wielding exactly the same moves day in day out, hammering the child with exams, the nuts and bolts of curriculum, the soldering on of character, the spray painting of happiness, the dark leathery interior of romantic poetry, the engineering of physical education, the computer brain ready to be plugged in to the hive mind. The robotic teacher – provided by an edTech company near you… The child sits lazily on a line, prodded and zapped, it passively passes through – splitting infinity.

Add to this that there are many factories with many products, not just cars, there are bags of crisps, many flavours, there are computers, pork pies, plasters, and plastic things, factories make so much stuff…

And there is a lot, too many, the tyranny of choice?

To reject this analogy, what would we have to do?

Would we want to reject the many different products, the vast and troublesome choice that floods our shop shelves? Far too much? A lot of it is exactly the same too… for all that choice there are many boxes of Persil and Daz.  So produce less, take more care, educate fewer? Make each teacher not a robot but a craft’s person – turning wood or clay into unique products… fewer in a lifetime, but each product worth so much more… taking time and care… And each craftsperson  supremely able and talented; not mechanistic, artistic.

The child, crafted into a unique individual, on the shelf of a select arty shop, fewer but more discerning customers picking them up and appreciating the craft that has gone into turning them into these precious pieces…

Or reject the analogy altogether?

Each child for themselves! Not made by others – free to roam, to be out in the fields and forests shaping their own destinies through the force of their inner spirits…


No more teachers, no more school…


Or find a different analogy?



Building British Values, Character and Resilience in Every Child


The recent white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere states that the Government is set on: “Building character and resilience in every child” It continues by stating that:

A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.

A gradual process of establishing the fundamental British value of knowing how to bounce back if faced with failure, a kind of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, if you will, finds itself nestling in with collaboration, perseverance and resilience. I suppose those might be British values or, indeed, the character traits of adults, the traits that clearly do not feature in Ian Duncan Smith’s personality as his resignation proves he is poor when it comes to perseverance. His resignation letter also proves a damning indictment of the character of Osborne, implying that collaboration is an issue for the ex St Paul’s boy as he is unable to fashion the spirit of ‘we’re all in it together…’

The character of these Government ministers does not display the stated fundamental British values, is this a failure of their education? Is this the sort of thing that this white paper will ensure never occurs again? Will everyone pass the British character test?

The white paper continues:

These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing… There are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.

Fundamental British values underpin academic success? I’m not sure if this is borne out by the evidence, immigrant communities seem to perform well, if anything the long tail of underachievement, as it has been known as for years, seems to be fundamentally a trait of the indigenous population.

Maybe these traits – character and British values belong only to the successful and retrospectively we can blame misery on the lack of collaborative work and lack of resilience… Sorry, let’s think this through… Failure seems to be important, if you are able to ‘bounce back’, Chumbawumba did a song about it:

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never going to keep me down

Pissing the night away

Fundamental British values of getting drunk, knocked down, getting up again… The value of failure – in an economy that is struggling at best, to put everything down to individual character is harsh to say the least but getting up and smashing the system might be a show of character…

But that would be anger… the white paper seems to extol the idea of happiness. The positive psychology movement and the smiley yellow self help gurus with their books are making their mark, but is ‘happiness’ a fundamental British value? Isn’t a good degree of pessimism or ‘mustn’t grumble’ grumbling the reasonably positive traits for those of us born in these Isles? Our sense of humour delights in our collective misery, our ‘happiness’ might depend on an attitude towards tragedy and the rocks that are hurled at us in the every day. Unbridled happiness might diminish the attitude of stoic irony that sees us through the downsizing economy and the efforts of our ‘Betters’ to ensure we are ‘happy’.

Many schools across the country already offer a wide range of imaginative, character-building opportunities to their pupils and our vision is for schools to increase their range of activities, based on strong relationships with local and national businesses, and voluntary and sporting organisations.

I’ve got nothing against this, it’s all to the good, though, depending on the business and what it intends to do with the child to ‘build their character’. It might be that the youth build their character through shifting trolleys around a windswept car park, which does indeed ‘build character’ and it might build a sense of ‘stoicism’, though it would be stretching it to call it happiness. This is where the ‘science’ comes in…

…we will work with the Behavioural Insights Team and What Works Centres to develop tools that schools can use to identify the most successful approaches to building character in their pupils, and to track how well those approaches are working. We will also work with expert organisations to provide a platform where teachers can share best practice about character development, evaluate new ideas, find professional development materials and contribute data to build the evidence base.


We will ensure evidence-based approaches to character development are built into initial teacher training programmes; and work with networks like teaching schools to spread the most effective approaches to developing character in schools. Finally, we will deliver a new round of Character Awards, recognising the schools and organisations which are most successful in supporting children to develop key character traits.

This is where things might get sinister. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it:

The inherent tragic dimension of human existence [is] a dimension that only literature (and other forms of art), but not psychology, can capture, and which indeed it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide from view with a thin veneer of science. Without an appreciation of the tragic dimension, all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.

This thin veneer of science will be placed over ‘character’ as though we can define it, measure it and judge whether the building of it is successful or not. What arrogance! This is government with a missionary zeal to convert your very self, not materially, but personally. This is government that feels its superiority, that is government by the Übermensch and they will use science to fool you into thinking that there is one way to be if you wish to be successful. This is shallow. It is also a sign of a culture in crisis. A confident culture can tolerate difference, opens itself up to conversation and argument about different ways to be, a society that tolerates, that knows it takes all sorts to make up the values that we could ascribe to be British or, indeed, human.

Who is to say what are the ‘key character traits’? This would imply cracking the human code, knowing the answer to what it is all about. Knowing the why and implying that we can codify these traits and all agree what that code might mean in practice. What nonsense, do we want a society where our very characters can be categorically measured against others?

To develop character the school day will be extended to include:

additional activity to help develop young people’s character… high quality instruction and coaching in sports and the arts, alongside activities such as debating, scouting and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.



knowledge-rich curriculum [will be] complemented by the development of the character traits and fundamental British values that will help children succeed

That knowledge of the arts and great literature can bring depth and richness to the conversation about what might constitute values and character traits that could be considered positive I do not doubt but to write these things in stone will not add to human knowledge, indeed it will surely diminish our knowing of these things. Imagine the shopping list of traits and all schools buying into the lesson plans provided by some well meaning ‘virtuous’ entrepreneur who determines to sell us the super scheme of character work. Imagine the character passports. Imagine the inset day with the humble consultant extolling the value of humility or whatever the list comprises. Hubris.

The white paper continues:

A 21st century education also promotes integration so that young people can play their part in our society. Schools and other education providers have an important role to play in promoting the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance and respect of those with different faiths and beliefs, while developing the knowledge, critical thinking and character traits that enable pupils to identify and challenge extremist views.

Mutual tolerance of those with different beliefs, but not ‘extremists’, does that include UKIP? Identifying and challenging extremist views does that mean taking on Jeremy Corbyn?  Why not identifying and challenging views, critical thinking is not just about some uncritical idea of what is extreme and this is not, critical thinking is a continual process, it can’t be written down as a list of acceptable opinions. Tradition can provide parameters for us but it should not be above critique. The, so called, British value of Individual liberty is a nonsense if you tell people what to think, what opinions they should have, and how their very character should be constituted.

What is British, maybe, is that, like our language, these things come from ‘below’, through our civil life. Character and characters, awkward and harmonious, come to us from our living life and by allowing everyone the fullest life possible by opening up opportunity and education to all throughout their life can do much to encourage the richness of this process.

There is much in the white paper that can help, including the extolling of programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh award, the national voluntary service, debating, sports and the arts. Put money into all of this. Invest in teaching not just Maths until eighteen but a breadth of subjects and, most importantly, the arts as it is the discussion around great art that can add so much to our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. A liberal arts approach to the curriculum, crowned by a baccalaureate with breadth and depth might be a good way to help deliver a richly humane education.

But, please, spare us the character ‘science’ and the pursuit of British values, it just isn’t , well, very British.



Independent, Critical Thinkers and Schooling


‘We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.’ Danton’s Death: Buchner

The French playwright, Olympe de Gouges, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’ criticised the French Revolutionary Regime, complaining ‘equality’ did not seem to include female suffrage. She wrote that: “My aim IS TO SPEAK TO YOU FREELY” and that: “The free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman…” She continued: “Let us move on and reflect on the frightful position that women held in society; given that a system of national education is now being contemplated, let us see if our wise Legislators will be rational in their consideration of the education of women.” She was guillotined for her fearless and outspoken words during ‘the Terror’ on 3rd November 1793. How tolerant of free expression can a society be?

How independent and free to think critically do we want our students to be? How far can they be free to disagree with their teachers? If the teacher is able to let go and is truly able to teach the student to be free of them, then we are performing a service that might be deemed ‘child centred’, in that the child, once free of the institution, has it within their grasp to be, forever free of that institution. Can the institution, the school or university tolerate individual freedom whilst the student is part of the institution or, in the name of equality, tolerance or respect, will it be stamped upon?

We might believe, strongly, that the values of the institution are the right ones for that child and that our institutional values will see that child through into adulthood but if we forever want that child to reflect the values of the institution this is far from a child-centred education, it is more ‘institution-centred’.

Can a school shape a child? Boris Johnson and David Cameron are known as ‘Old Etonians’ – no matter what they do they will find it hard to escape the epigram OE that is knitted into our consciousness of them. Is it that that school had an impact on these two or is it just the prejudices of we onlookers wishing that OE means something, maybe, privilege?

To what extent should a school go to deny freedom to those who want to go against the grain? Jenny Beavan the Oscar and Bafta winning costume designer for the Mad Max ‘Fury Road’ movie shows that standing out, going against the grain, still causes ructions… But as she says: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character…” implying that the nation of her birth and rebelliousness have a symbiotic relationship, if she had worn those clothes every day to school, what would have become of her?

If we teach a child to adopt, forever, the beliefs of an institution so that they might forever obey those beliefs then we are not inculcating an education for freedom but one of servitude. If we dictate and impose the ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…’ by repressing the individual liberty of someone who pushes the boundaries of what might be meant by ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ we act in a way that Olympe de Gouges might have recognised. Mutual respect and tolerance, can be an imposition, in much the same way as ‘equality’ was after the French Revolution, as one might be denying ‘individual liberty’ in order to ensure that ‘tolerance’ is shown. This is why we end up with such utterances as ‘intolerant of intolerance’; a moral dilemma that ought to be discussed rather than taken at face value.

Character education, values, beliefs, all sound great when they are values and beliefs you agree with and character traits you can warm to, but if schools have the power to shape the values, beliefs and characters of the next generation would we want everyone to be carbon copies of each other? How much freedom would we deny the school leaver in order to ensure they were carbon copies of a school values statement?

The rogue, the anarchist, the egoist, the sceptic, the awkward outlier, the shy, the introvert, the gritless, the witty and the witless… How many of these awkward cusses would survive in a new world order made out of the demands of school centred values? With a broad curriculum, a range of teachers and approaches and experiences, most children can find their niche, but in a narrower curriculum faced with the same old, same old, the same old children might struggle to find a ‘home’.

What about the rude, the right wing, the vile… according to Wikipedia, Kew-Forest School in New York: ‘provides a safe, nurturing, and intellectually vigorous environment that inspires every student to explore and expand creative interests, to apply courageous and innovative thinking, and to become an ethical contributor to ever-widening communities. Kew-Forest students develop the skills necessary for pursuing higher education and for acquiring the essential competencies of a responsible citizen.’ At thirteen years old, due to behaviour problems, Donald Trump had to leave this school (though I’m sure its mission statement was different in those days…) he attended instead the New York Military Academy which ‘was founded in 1889 by Charles Jefferson Wright, an American Civil War veteran and former schoolteacher from New Hampshire who believed that a military structure provided the best environment for academic achievement, a philosophy to which the school still adheres.’ Now, maybe, Trump was formed by his educational experiences, but would we want his character, beliefs and values to be tempered and formed by his school(s)? Would the world be better off if Trump was a different kinda guy? (Don’t answer that…)

Maybe a school can help with, socialisation, ’emotional intelligence’ or ‘manners’, within the microcosm of society that the school represents, but ought it encourage independence of thought? If a child is free to leave an institution so that they can then go ahead and forge their own way, even if that way flies in the face of the values that the school might have wished them to have, is that not preferable to a conveyor belt of similars being produced to a design deigned to be correct in the staff room?

How much freedom can an educational institution endure? Free speech, we’re banning it; the right to offend, we’re offended by it; eccentricity, we can tolerate it as long as it’s in your own home, in your own time, it’s not on Facebook and nobody knows about it… if not, there’s probably a therapist for it; politically incorrect? There’s a punishment for that…

When we say we want independent, creative and critical thinkers do our schools really have the power to achieve this and, if they do, can we tolerate a good degree of freedom within our walls to show we value these aims or do we wish to turn out independent, critically thinking clones of ourselves who agree with our every value and utterance?

An education that fosters individual liberty is a difficult aim to have, I wonder if it is an achievable one.

On Character: Can We Know the Dancer From the Dance?


O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

WB Yeats: Among School Children

The Sutton Trust report A Winning Personality identified:

…extraversion (sociability, confidence, assertiveness), self-esteem, and a positive outlook as particularly beneficial for career success, and an external locus of control (a belief that one’s successes and failures are outside one’s control) to be particularly detrimental.

By examining data from the BBC ‘Big Personality Test’ they decided that:

… highly extraverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year), with the odds being higher for men than women. We also found that people who scored high for conscientiousness (thoroughness, and a preference for planning and order) had approximately a 20% higher chance of having a high-paying job.

If only everyone danced the dance of the extravert, then all would be successful. If only the poor had big egos then all would be right with the world. But is it the dance of extraversion that makes a successful dancer? Could it be a character trait the successful develop when they look in their mirror: ‘Oh, look at me I’m great…’

Or is this another example of scientism? Science venturing into areas it is ill equipped to deal with.

Nietzsche talked of the ego as belonging to the master mentality rather than the slave morality. He thought Christian values were responsible for a slave morality where all men had the same worth. These slave values, based on envy, were doing a disservice to mankind by championing values of generosity and care for the weak. Nietzsche championed the virtues  of the powerful, the ‘Übermensch’; he thought the master mentality included the imagination, he admired the artistic spirit of Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner (until they fell out) these figures were: daring, curious, creative and brave and had, what Nietzsche called a ‘will to power’:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power): and to thrust back all that resists its extension. 

…my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche asks us to live! He sees values as created by man: we are free to choose whatever values we want to have it is this that enables us to be free…. God is dead  but what is a full life in a Godless world? Living your life as if it might be lived again and again. Nietzsche saw man as a process of overcoming conflicts within himself to surpass and become a tragic but noble hero. The Übermensch were both creator and created, they were both dancer and the dance and the next step in man’s development.

Nietzsche saw the need for the elimination of the weak by the strong, a need to replace the stupid with the clever. Some contemporary educationalists delight in this self same idea, instead of indulging the morality of the slave and the values of compassion, the trait of ‘introversion’, and maybe a pessimistic mood, they seem to delight in wanting to seek the stamping out of ‘weakness’ by getting kids to adopt a changing mindset and the character traits of extroverted, confident, assertive optimists.

I must admit that Nietzsche’s list is far more attractive than that of the Sutton Trust, but in a Godless universe in which we can, and must, make our own values the Übermensch can write their own lists but our contemporary lists don’t seem to be about improving the lot of man. Rather than being free our second rate Übermensch need to delight in just earning a spit over £40,000 a year and remain slaves to the workplace. This is hardly the lot of tragic noble heroes. This dance is choreographed by the unimaginative: instead of stamping out the weak, we teach that those that earn below £40,000 do so due to their character flaws and even though teachers have done their best to point these flaws out to them, they clearly have the wrong mindset, poor fools. Mind you how many teachers earn below £40,000 a year?

If you kill God and replace Him with the marketplace, believe character is a measurable quantity and think that all the meek have to do is to dance the same dance as those that wear the smartest suits,  you miss the point. These are not the Übermensch. The cult of scientism seems to think some people are successful due to rather dull character traits. Can success on earth really be attained by dancing this dance? Nietzsche would have recognised that the dance and the dancer are one and the same and in order to join the Übermensch we would have to say NO to the values written for us by the Sutton Trust. Instead we should become the Übermensch by overcoming our burdens, wandering in solitude and roaring at those who step in our way and finally freeing ourselves, childlike to dance our own dances: becoming at once the dancer and the dance, in our circular heaven on earth.

But truly, to celebrate humanity in all its majesty we must celebrate all, both weak and strong, and appreciate our fellow human beings for what they bring to us, not bully them into acquiring the ‘winning personalities’ of estate agents, double glazing salesman and drama teachers due to some dubious science. There are many dances and dancers on the best dance floors.

And we make ourselves stronger by not believing the ultimate worth of man is travelling the tube to another dreary day of servitude in the hope we can all squeeze past £40,000 per annum.