Yesterday I was concerned to see this pop up in my timeline:
It refers to a program in which Sir Anthony Seldon, former headmaster of Wellington College, states that schools should effectively be bringing children up rather than just giving them an academic education and this includes aspects of character formation. I am concerned that this rhetoric is misinterpreted by those in the state sector in particular and that they think that certain character traits such as the fashionable ‘resilience’ can be taught and measured, or perhaps inserted as a success criteria or learning objectives alongside or instead of teaching an aspect of history for example? I am also worried that state educators cherry pick what seems to be the little extras in private school and assume they are the reason the privately educated young person ends up more ‘resilient’.
(Usual disclaimer needed these days because twitterati seem to think all writing promotes mutual exclusivity of aspects of education: no I am not saying that schools shouldn’t seek to improve children’s character, and while we’re at it, no I am not saying that I don’t think economic circumstances affects children’s education either.)
My concerns boil down to the following:
- Private schools are famously quite good at the character formation side of things, but they do this with a longer day and ‘character formation’ doesn’t just happen because of co-curricular activities but with other aspects of education that many state educators find unpalatable
- I believe that ‘character’ is also something that forms in the home and within the close family, and we should be encouraging that, not seeking to usurp the role of parents
- A weekly lesson on growth mindset, or a few assemblies about ‘not giving up’ will not make children resilient. I believe character formation is something that is fostered, relentlessly. I believe the task of helping children become mature, responsible and kind adults (ie. possessing good ‘character’) is a long and arduous one, and it needs to be done by the whole school and the close family
It’s easy to look at the extra opportunities that private schools (and many middle class families) provide and think that these ‘extras’ must therefore be the golden ticket to decent character formation. Sometimes even those in the private sector tell us this! Yes, we have the extended day with lots of lovely opportunities for a wider education, but if state educators were to think that doing the same would suddenly and miraculously produce young adults who are resilient, compassionate etc, then they would be sorely disappointed. I think this is an extension of the oft held view that providing lots of fun clubs, lessons and activities will make children happy, and that happy children who only have fun, exciting and interesting experiences (or experiences that somehow cancel out a less ‘fun’ life at home), will grow into happy people who can cope better with life, including exams. It’s basically cherry-picking and it also brushes aside the fact that the very same co-curricular participation in orchestras and competitive sports can actually be a pretty hard (character forming) slog for children. As any grandparent with years of experience-honed wisdom will tell you, this ‘let’s make all their experiences fun’ idea is pure folly and only makes a rod for the parents/educators’ backs because children then come to expect only happy and fun experiences, and without experiencing a bit of small-dose hardship, they can’t cope with the real hardships that life will throw at them.
What are these little hardships that children need to experience in order to develop good character and to think of others? In the school the might look like this:
- Obeying strict rules of conduct and dress code
- Coping with pressure from educators (expectations) and fellow peers (competition) to do well and being publicly held accountable
- Receiving a severe ticking off and possibly a punishment when they have been lazy, disrespectful or disobedient
In the home the little hardships might look like this:
- Obeying strict rules of conduct, routine and dress code
- Coping with pressure from parents to do well
- Receiving a severe ticking off and possibly punishment when they have been lazy, disrespectful or disobedient
Of course, children might attempt to rebel, or protest, but we are steadfast in our commitment. As ever, balance must be struck and we also remember to give praise where praise is due. Many children come from homes where the little hardships I describe above are almost non-existent, but these homes are not necessarily the homes that we immediately think of, they could also be homes where children live in opulent wealth, never having to lift a finger; this is why the more famous private schools have such notoriously strict regimes and usually a big dose of religion as well (religion provides a great set of character-forming rules to live life by, even for non-believers). Still, many parents of children who are educated in the state sector were not parented well themselves, which is why I believe we need to be honest and say to parents that they need to do their very important role well, rather than just taking on their roles on without question.
Ultimately, these little hardships, unfashionable as they are and whether they are experienced at home and/or at school, help children to mature, to think of others, to be responsible and hard-working and to not give up so easily when the going gets tough. Unfortunately many educators, particularly those without parenting experience, think that the little hardships are somehow cruel, and would instead do some or all of the following:
- Encourage freedom of conduct and dress
- Encourage children to do what feels good and easy
- Brush aside poor behaviour, instead giving unrelenting praise
The above is an extreme position, but I find that it is often cloaked in the rhetoric of child-centred education and delivered with professional-sounding pseudopsychoanalytical spiel. Regardless of how much these attitudes influence whole-school policy, they actively promote the opposite of decent character formation, and the class teacher in these circumstances will struggle to ‘teach’ children a lesson about not giving up when the going gets tough if the children are never expected to cope with a bit of whole-school tough love!
I sometimes wonder whether the attitudes expressed in the picture above are also part and parcel of a trend for school leaders to pass workload and responsibility down to the front line teacher. We all know that giving responsibility for behaviour management entirely to the class teacher ends in tears for all, even though to this day there are still thousands, maybe tens of thousands of teachers right now in primary and secondary schools who are expected to set their own detentions, who are told to make their lessons more fun, or who are told that when children are disrespectful and rude that they somehow deserved it because maybe they hadn’t thought about differentiating their plenaries enough, but has there been any similar enlightenment on the task of character formation? My fear is that when school leaders talk of measuring certain traits, that class teachers and form tutors will be given yet another responsibility that should really be dealt with by whole-school policy and backed up by school leadership.
So, let’s have more of the little hardships and let’s not expect the teacher to be responsible for a child’s character in addition to their academic performance!
Who’s with me?