Tag Archives: Sutton Trust

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.

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.