Obstacles to getting character education right

The ScoutsLast Monday I attended the launch of the Demos report ‘Learning by Doing’, hosted jointly with The Scouts Association, in the majestic surroundings of the State Rooms within the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster. This was an event on ‘non-formal learning’ and the role it can play in character development. Alongside Dweck’s growth-mindset, character traits such as ‘grit’ (see Paul Tough or Angela Duckworth) or the ‘Big Five’ (see James Heckman) are the key buzzwords currently preoccupying the education commentariat. This focus stems from the top of Government where Nicky Morgan has pledged to make Britain a “global leader” in teaching character, resilience and grit to pupils.

This is a notable shift in priority from Morgan’s predecessor, Michael Gove, though this isn’t to say that Gove did not value character education. Instead he (rightly) focused on addressing the woeful state of academic education that many British school children were receiving prior to 2010. Indeed, the Demos report acknowledges this in a speech Gove made in 2014 where he stated that he had “never visited a school that excelled academically which didn’t also excel in extra-curricular activities”. Gove believed that, given the space and freedom to innovate, academies and free-schools would provide the broad and balanced education that more privileged children in the independent sector currently enjoy. Many schools already do this really brilliantly, though there are also others that don’t due to misguided priorities and a lack of vision. Demos’ research shows that just one third of students on free-school meals (FSM) reported taking part in outdoor activities, compared with (an equally unimpressive) 43% of non-FSM students. 
This is a disgraceful predicament and one that should make the blood boil of all who believe in equality of opportunity.

The Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, in the first budget by a Conservative government for 19 years, to spend “£50 million to expand the number of cadet units in our state schools to 500, prioritising less affluent areas” is a wonderful first step to begin to rectify this. Yet alongside Nicky Morgan’s intentions come a huge array of challenges:

  • How to recognise, capture, share and assess current (good) practice without introducing a new wave of form-filling and bureaucracy. Having organised over a dozen informal and non-formal learning activities over the past three years I know the hours needed to make these things happen in the first place . We don’t want to fall into creating a systematic trap, as occurs in some schools currently, where every trip has to be analysed and reviewed for its impact on pupil achievement and character development, sometimes only a week(!) later.
  • How to assess the activities that truly develop a child’s character. For instance, Morgan praised the fact that King Solomon Academy produces unabridged Shakespeare plays from year 7 onwards, but despite its sheer impressiveness, does this really instill a greater degree of character traits than say, performing in an abridged school production of Grease or Les Miserables? We should have high aspirations for all pupils but we should not make claims that are unsubstantiated.
  • How to encourage a broader focus on educating the whole child without taking the foot off the gas on the need to raise academic standards. The only way to achieve this would be with a change to the league tables to incorporate a character element (though good luck to the poor soul who is responsible for devising this measure) and substantial reform of Ofsted to adjust the focus away from snapshots of individual lessons to holistic understanding of the school’s direction, ethos and successes/failures. The ever forthright Katharine Birbalsingh has some interesting ideas on this here.
  • How to present schools with the time to run such activities. Demos’ research suggests that 90% of teachers cite a lack of time as the greatest barrier to running non-formal learning activities. I fully sympathise with this and know full-well the time spent on meeting unproven and unreachable marking criteria and chasing up of students/students’ parents in light of yet another behaviour incident in class. This issue is part of a greater Workload Challenge the Government is looking at, and the Secretary of State could do worse than look at the words of the ever wise Joe Kirby on this matter.

Despite these clear obstacles to getting character education right, I believe that there is little the Secretary of State can do through diktat from the centre; as with almost every major issue facing schools today this requires strong, visionary school leadership. Schools need head teachers who understand that these non-formal learning activities are an essential part of a broad and balanced (and yes, academic) curriculum. The organisations already exist – The Scouts, the Army Cadet Force, Step Up To Serve, Debate Mate, National Citizen Service – just to name a few. The cash already exists – with pupil premium students attracting an additional £935 – £1320 from the State. Yet, despite this some argue that this is not possible in the current environment where exam results and success in league tables are seen as essential. They might say that schools churning out students with poor literacy and numeracy skills, alongside weak GCSEs grades, need to focus all of their efforts on academic, classroom teaching.

This logic ignores the growing evidence base that participation in non-formal education activities boosts performance in academic subjects (I aim to write more on this another time). Moreover, it fails to understand some of the challenges that exist in developing a child’s intrinsic motivations to be in school. Teaching in a challenging school for two years taught me that behaviour can sometimes be difficult to manage in schools because young people believe they have nothing to lose from missing out in class. This is a sad indictment of a school system that has developed whereby teachers are unable to discipline pupils effectively, where school leaders undermine teachers with their own moral weaknesses, and where teachers are unable to inspire children to want to learn and to value learning. Disaffected young people can have complex array psychological reasons for not wanting to work.

One of the main duties a school can provide young people with is a sense of self-worth and purpose at school and, for children who are struggling at school, non-formal learning might well be the way to get these children to value school. Some children can be encouraged to behave in class due to the consequences of missing out on formal learning. For other children, this won’t work; in fact, the opportunity to miss out on learning might actually be an incentive! For these children, the challenge to get them to value learning is difficult but a starting point must be to give them something to value in order to acknowledge what they have to lose from misbehaving at school. One needs only to look at the inspiring work going on at schools like The Boxing Academy to see how powerful this can be.

Demos’ suggestions in both Character Nation and Learning by Doing appear sensible, but Nicky Morgan faces some significant challenges if she is to succeed in her worthy mission of making effective character education available for all.

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