Tom Bennett

Home » 2013 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2013

The New National Curriculum: Citizenship and Starship Troopers

Do you want to know more? Usually not. 

Come on you sons of bitches. You want to live forever?

The strangest thing to survive the NC reboot is Citizenship. Unlovely, often unloved, it is the ugly duckling of the curricular zoo. Most subjects evolved organically via a natural selection, but Citizenship flopped out of the sterile womb of a laboratory in 1988, following the recommendations of the Crick report. It’s aims were strikingly different from its timetabled peers: it sought to actively encourage ‘that children should develop as successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society’.

As I have frequently observed, citizenship is one of the most overt methods by which a governments attempt to influence not just what children know and the skills they possess, but also what they value. Once again, the solution to complex societal problems (fractured neighbourhoods, dislocation of new communities, separation by class, age and culture) is attempted by a sticking plaster: teach them to be better citizens at school.

I am weary of senators attempting to fix the world through education, when an example of this ever actually working seems to be hard to find. The reason why education is so sexy to legislators is because children are the least resistant of constituents; disenfranchised from the electoral system, they can be moulded far more provocatively than any autonomous adult. It’s a train set of apparent opportunity, but as any leader will tell you, change on the ground is far more difficult to achieve. Changing society from Westminster, or even the HO of an exam board, is akin to playing snooker with lengths of rope. A lot happens between elbow and pocket.

We see another example of citizenship education in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which Paul Verhoeven translated into a choppy but subversive cinematic satire in 1997. Skimmed over in the movie, much of Heinlein’s novel takes place in the classroom. In the imagined future of the Terran Federation, democracy and citizenship take centre stage in education. In this world, the 20th century saw liberal democracies disintegrate due to entitlement without responsibility: “people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.” The franchise shrank from ‘everyone over 18, with a heart beat, more or less’ to citizens, a status that had to be earned through community service. This could take the form of military service, but also civil contribution. Non citizens still enjoyed many liberties and rights, but only citizens could vote, having earned it through participation.

The chapters where the protagonist Rico remembers his High School classes (called History and Moral Philosophy) are fascinating. Heinlein is often accused of fascism, glorifying war and promoting the status quo. But did the classrooms of Tom Brown’s Schooldays do anything less? Besides, you don’t prove anything with fiction, you illustrate it. I once sat through a joyless actor’s workshop paid for by the DfE on the Fast track training program, where they demonstrated leadership skills through the medium of Henry V. I questioned whether a story that was essentially, made up, could teach us anything about the real world, other than in an artistic sense. I was told, but this is Shakespeare.’ I’m not kidding.

I don’t set my shoulder against the content of Citizenship; as a politics/ philosophy graduate, I love many of the topics. But that doesn’t argue for their automatic inclusion in a compulsory curriculum. There are a million things that are potentially useful or interesting; why don’t we include them too? There was little justification for the creation of Citizenship, and there still isn’t. The trouble is, one now needs a reason to get rid of it, because by now there is a skeleton of bodies and tradition that now exists to defend it.

So, the aims of Citizenship are highly suspect; The outcomes are equally nebulous and unsubstantiated. Didn’t most of the kids in the London riots get Citizenship lessons? Boy, that turned out well. More scientifically perhaps, was the 2005 inquiry into CE by the House of Commons Education and Skills Selct Committee. They concluded ‘ It is too early to say with any degree of confidence whether citizenship education is producing the wide range of impacts originally hoped for.’ This, after 17 years of the bloody thing. How long would you like? TAKE ALL THE TIME YOU NEED BRO.

There was no need to invent Citizenship; no one was crying out for it. ‘Please,’ they begged, ‘A new topic, a bag of different subjects and things to teach.’ It was created in a test tube, and released into the world like GM wheat (which at least has the virtue of clear utility). I know a huge number of kids who think its a CBeebies qualification. Few teachers specialise in it, and therefore it often gets farmed out in many schools to the unqualified and unhappy rump of the teaching body, and only then because it was a compulsory part of the school offer.

More damningly, because Citizenship is usually a short course GCSE, it won’t count toward league tables, and many schools will drop it like it’s hot. They’ll evidence its delivery through other subjects, which is always an unsubtle way of suggesting that it isn’t really a subject at all, but a theme. I particularly like the odd jumble of aims: politics, participation, anti-racism, financial management….all it needs is cake baking and astronomy to really unify the theme.

Overt manipulation of the values of children is a job for parents more than schools, especially in the political sphere. If you want children to participate and engage more with political office then we need to ensure that political office isn’t seen as a concentric, circular trough of self-interest and promotion. If you want children to believe that they belong to a community, then everyone in the community needs to act as if it exists and matters, every parent, teacher and councillor. Let them see adults acting as role models of kindness, fortitude and humility, and watch as children learn to emulate these values. Insist upon sociable conduct, and patrol that insistence with sanctions and rewards. This is how characters are formed; in a long, slow, complicated process that resembles attrition far more than instruction. Or perhaps the growth of a tree.

If you want good citizens, it can’t be taught directly. Citizens, like adults, are raised, not examined. So why has it survived? Perhaps because, as I indicated, it’s easier to leave it bleeding in a ditch than to kill it off. Wouldn’t it be kinder to put it out of its misery?

My thoughts on the History Curriculum part 2: This island Earth.

‘Et tu, Starkey?’

This is how the draft History curriculum describes its first few aims:

·         know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world
·         know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today
·         know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind

That last bit is my favourite: the achievements and follies of mankind. Let me only sketch a curriculum from my life and I’ll fashion you a puppet theatre of follies that would chill your kidneys.
Key Stage 1 is brief and broad enough. I’ve heard complaints that this curriculum is too packed. Yet within the sketch of the draft document I see no references to exactly how much time should be spent on each topic, nor the depth. ‘We’ll never cover it all,’ I hear people say. Well, I teach KS3, and I have a non-statutory curriculum too.  You pick the depth to which you want to descend, and calculate the time in which you want to achieve it. Curricular design isn’t a Meccano set; it’s more like an Etch-a-sketch. By the time you hit KS4, there are so many checkpoints to reach that it feels as edgy and spontaneous as a join-the-dots picture, but prior to that, there is a fluidity that can be unlocked.
‘Not tonight, (Keith) Jospehine.’ Sorry.
In all of the three key stages described there are dozens of points where a globally minded teacher could freestyle off into the world at large: ‘key events in the past’ (KS1) could touch on Christmas, pilgrims and faiths of foreign origin; the Crusades (KS2) easily encompass the Middle East, the Muslim empires, the rise of Kevin Costner; the Norman Conquest (KS2) could- and I’m sticking my neck out here- touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands. Most teachers I know could invent such points of intersection in a heart beat. It might be telling that some of the complaints I have heard are from people who have never taught a lesson, let alone a history lesson.
I teach, at KS3 and 4, RS. I follow a syllabus like Miles Davis follows scales; it provides the notes, and I provide the music. At times I soar away from the sheet music, but I always return to the melody. And by the time exams come around, my students all know the tune plus any riffs and licks I wove into the sequence. So while I deliver, dutifully, the required ‘Big 6’ religions in year 7, for example, I also drive off the map into lessons on Rastafarianism, conspiracy theories, Wicca, Scientology….whatever brings the best of what I know to them. Sometimes I ask what they’d like to learn, and if I like it as much, that’s what we learn about.
The curriculum shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It should be a climbing frame; a launch pad. With thought and preparation, it can be. Anyone who has a problem with the idea of a democratically elected body (namely, the government) creating structure for the course, surely needs to take their issues up with the concept of democracy. Besides, there is so much a teacher can do with a syllabus, any syllabus. It’s up to us, as professionals, to take the opportunity and revisit what it means to be a teacher. We can be much more powerful, although God knows we have dragged the chains of high stakes accountability around with us for decades. No wonder we often lose the instinct for innovation within our own subjects.
If only the Carry-On team had more input into the NC
And for those who say this is a dead white man History, I say, a) you got a problem with dead white men? and b) The KS3 syllabus is bristling with opportunity to explore social emancipation, suffrage, and the recognition of the rights and liberties of the oppressed. I wonder if I’m looking at the same syllabus as some people. If there’s a strong emphasis on eg the British Empire, then that’s because the British Empire was enormously significant, and the ripples it generated still rock the water upon which we rest. And if you want a lens through which to examine the world, the Empire provides the perfect vehicle. This isn’t about getting kids to button up their tunics and strike up a chorus of Men of Harlech; this can simultaneously be Michael Caines Zulu as much as Dabulamanzi kaMpande’s.
As to the expertise of the Cassandras, I can only say that education is a battlefield of values as much as one of fact and expertise. There are some who believe that facts are less relevant in a Google age, when children can summon them from their smart phones like wraiths, proving that skills of critical thinking and discernment are more portable, more relevant to a new age.
And then there are teachers like me, who think this is well-meant flower pressing. That children don’t know what facts to conjure if they don’t know what they are in the first place; that knowledge becomes memorisation without context and understanding; that there are an enormous number of people in the field of education who wish subsequent generations of children to be deprived of the obvious benefits of the quality of instruction that they themselves enjoyed.
It is also ironic that, after so many centuries of teachers, we need to remind ourselves what teaching really involves, and why learning from history is important. Civilisations, like interest rates, can go up as well as down. Ask Gibbon.

White Rajahs and Dinosaurs: The Draft Proposals for the National Curriculum Part 1- History

‘Just blow the bloody doors off the curriculum, Hooky!’

History has always been a battlefield. Few subjects pay allegiance so easily to their imagined relationship with ideology. Like Roulette, your chips are either on red or black-or in this analogy, blue. On one hand there are advocates of liberation history: society seen as a history of class struggle, increments of emancipation, rights, justice and social capital. On the other, the advocates of linearity, chronology, dead white Kings and empires. Frequently this is seen as winner takes all: every chip goes in. But this is a convenient, lazy perspective. The game permits other permutations.
Every leak is accompanied by a perfect storm of ire, thunderous navel gazing and the sound of swords being sharpened. Remove one Churchill, Seacole, Victoria- and prepare for the siege of Krishnapur as their devotees explain how their absence extinguishes understanding of Gallipoli, Crimea, ladys mourning fashions. Specify their inclusion, and wad your muskets for their defence. Everyone has their pet histories. How dare you omit Amritsar, or the Sepoy Mutiny? shouts one end of the stands, while the other screams for Rorke’s Drift and Admiral Beaufort.
A good deal of the non- teaching chatterazzi have focused on content, because it’s the easiest to grasp, and because it lends itself so readily to prejudice and expectation.
Victorian London in the 1890s
This debate has, like the event horizon of a black hole, swallowed everything and everyone. Curiously, the last thing that generated this kind of historical heat in the public imagination was Danny Boyle’s omnipopular frontispiece to the Olympics’ when 60 million Britons put down their Unhappy Meals and thought, ‘Hang on, maybe I won’t put my head in an oven today.’ I’ve heard some people, normally ones I would trust with keys and lighters, saying that ‘this is the kind of history we should be teaching children.’ What, the bit where the Queen jumped out of a plane with James Bond? The bit where Isambard Brunel forged the rings of Mordor? It was brilliant, of course, but to understand any part of it, first you have to understand to what it was alluding. Otherwise it’s just spectacle. Which for many, perhaps it was, punctuated with Voldemort and Mary Poppins.
Everyone wants children to understand history, but no one, it seems can agree what this means. Real understanding requires the knowledge of facts in context: knowing that, and knowing how it relates to other data. Facts without context are just that favourite of the anti-facts brigade: pub quiz fodder. But facts, coherently juxtaposed, transforms them from islands to archipelagos, to continents of comprehension. On such broad plains, everything else is possible: innovation, invention, intellectual revolution.
Some dead guy
Few things lens themselves as agreeably to this process as history. Until time decides to act otherwise, it flows from past to future on the crest of an unfathomable now, and in one direction only, unless you are a sub-atomic particle, which none of us are presently. To understand one moment, we must understand the moment that preceded it, in a succession of yesterdays that reaches backwards from the Playstation 4 to the Whitechapel Ripper, to the White Rajah of Sarawak, the Diet of Worms, dinosaurs and beyond.
Few would dispute this. The contention rests as much on what is included as what is omitted. Given that any history not personally lived must necessarily be condensed (and even such personal experiences are partial and fragmentary), which stories make the cut? What’s important?
Well, from the looks of it, we are. The decision to use the history of Britain as a launch pad to understand the world has received a battering, but where else should we start, standing as we are in Britain? As children our understanding is immersed in ‘I’. This egoism slowly melts into an appreciation of the second, then third person. We call this ‘growing up’. To understand the history of the world it is necessary to understand the history of your own hearth. First, where we came from; then, how we fit into other stories. In this way, an encyclopaedia of narratives are stitched together into a broader tapestry that itself reaches out, far beyond our grasp. It would be foolish to lay the first brick of a wall in mid air; bridges are built from your feet, outwards.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow, wherein Mr Bennett considers the matter of Romans, Vikings, Spacemen and Pirates

The other Dark Meat: Does it matter where ideas come from?

There are claims in the press today and every day that the government doesn’t listen to what the profession is saying, and that reforms have been driven by prejudice and partiality. These ideas have come from the wrong source. But does it matter?

Horse meat puns might have jumped the shark within about 15 minutes, but a real issue remains: where something come from often matters. It matters because provenance is more than just a place in France, it’s also an integral part in establishing quality. The fact that budget, microwave ready-meals aren’t actually made from hand-massaged Kobe beef should surprise no one, and if it does you then I have some magic beans I’d like to sell you. If you want cheap meat, don’t be surprised if you end up with a stew of slurry, lips and assholes.

Charlie Brooker’s controversial remake of National Velvet

Provenance too matters in education. Take grade inflation- and I hope by now we can accept as an axiom that grade inflation was a real thing. Either that, or for the last twenty five years, children have been getting smarter, teachers better, in gradual, regular increments. Sure I can’t interest you in those beans? Or maybe exams became steadily easier. The Front Benches, even OFQUAL itself admits it, yet there are still some flat-earthers who deny it. Exam boards, driven by mercantile passions, competed and pimped with each other, turning out tricks, offering syllabuses that were steadily drained of content, drip by drip, until they were nearly bloodless carcasses. In public, they stuck signs in it that read ‘beef’. In reality, Shergar.

To avoid this, exam boards must feel free from the need to compete with one another. It’s one of those areas of public life for which the state was invented- where public interest must outweigh private benefit. Otherwise, like Thénardier, you mix it in the mincer and pretend its beef. Ironically, with all the twists and turns of education policy this week, it was the reversal of government intention in this area that most teachers disagreed with. Having one exam board, it seems, was the most popular thing that Gove couldn’t do.

Oddly enough, many teachers surveyed by the DfE were still against the removal of most coursework as part of school assessments, despite the widespread acknowledgement that coursework is the most corrupt of all exam practices: subject to teacher ‘over-intervention’, parental direction, and the very worst excesses of privilege.

One significant complaint I have heard is that the current regime doesn’t listen to teachers enough. What people usually mean by this is they don’t listen to them. Opinions in education will always be divided, because so much of educational theory is a matter of values. It’s like the accusation of being ‘ideologically driven’ that is often thrown at Gove, as if only the wicked have a set of values. Twigg, Rosen, and all the other horsemen of the Progressive Apocalypse are just as driven by dogma and relativity as any other.

This is one area where provenance doesn’t matter. Who cares where a belief comes from, if it is sound? I couldn’t care less if the reforms are driven by Gove’s nannies, dice, or the entrails of a goat. There isn’t one ‘voice of teachers’, because teachers are a nation of millions; worse, an asteroid belt. Unions, though important (sometimes) represent the interest of their members, and are not dispassionate arbiters of educational wisdom. When education was puréed in the nineties and noughties by well meaning people who believed literacy meant reading IKEA manuals and not spelling and grammar, from the unions there was not a peep.

No, the best people to decide pedagogy are teachers, and teachers who can actually evidence their successes, either in context or absolutely. I don’t listen to behaviour advice from someone who has never taught a difficult class successfully; I ignore anyone who tells me how to teach literacy unless they can show they’ve taken kids from A to Z, and all letters in between.

That’s the only provenance that matters. Educational research is a valuable tool, as long as it is as strict with itself as any chemist would be expected to behave. Much of educational debate is simply partisan, as Roundheads and Cavaliers lob agreeable pseudo-research that backs them up at one another. This has to end. Science cannot be pimped out every time someone wants to justify a prejudice. For any reform to be valid, it must be shown to have valid empirical evidence to support it, or have a plausible mechanism with components that can themselves be plausibly inferred from experience.

Anything else is dark meat.

When everyone’s special, no one is: how inclusion went sour.

Not shown here: ‘no suitable modifications offered.’

What do we mean when someone has special needs? And why do we get it so spectacularly wrong?

Interesting article in this week’s TES about SEN provision:

‘Pupils with statements of special educational needs are being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, prompting fears that many of the most vulnerable children are receiving a poor education.’

Part of me can’t see the controversy. Given that many statemented needs revolve around behaviour, it’s not surprising that many SEN pupils spend time outside of the classroom. That isn’t an indication of failure itself, but simply a recognition that removing a challenging student to a less crowded space is often the most sensible strategy. It’s also not surprising that students with learning difficulties are removed to nurture groups. In fact, in my experience it’s not removal that’s the problem, but not removing.

Inclusion; that’s the pivot around which this all revolves. When I started teaching in 2003, I was amazed that classrooms often contained students so badly behaved, or with learning needs so pronounced, that I knew I could never provide for them adequately. What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesn’t speak English, but has no interpreter in the class? With a pupil who frequently assaulted or insulted teachers? With a student in a GCSE class with a reading age of seven? More, why were such pupils packed into the same classroom as everyone else? Inclusion, I was told.

Inclusion was treated very seriously. I received several lectures and tutorials on it when training. Every lesson plan I made had to include awareness of inclusion issues. Differentiation was supposed to be the catalyst to this magic process; if I planned the right lesson, it seemed, everyone would be caught in the gravity of the lesson. This was a complete lie.

Plato spoke about Noble Lies- untruths that were useful, like the belief in Gods, which he claimed kept people moral. Inclusion was and is an attempt to generate a contemporary Noble Lie, only instead of conjuring goodness through the threat of divine retribution, we imagine that wishing for inclusiveness creates it.

But it doesn’t. Instead, inclusion, handled in the most knuckle-headed manner, has created a vale of tears where everyone loses: children with special needs don’t get the support they need- instead having to cope in classrooms for which many are not ready- and the mainstream class has to suffer and starve due to the disproportionate focus that challenging or very needy students require. And somewhere under this enormous pyramid of toil and chaos, is the teacher, unable to meet the needs of his class, harrowed by failure.

Get Out of Jail Free

‘OFSTED, muthaf***er. DO YOU SPEAK IT?’

A second issue is the designation of statements themselves. Many children are statemented for reasons that, decades ago, would hardly have been seen as a special need at all. We have all worked with children who are statemented for behaviour, yet who are perfectly capable of behaving well for a certain teacher, or their parents. This makes a mockery of the whole system- Old Andrew calls it the SEN racket– as it shows that we have medicalised many perfectly normal parts of the behaviour spectrum and redesignated them as pathologies. This reductivist approach to human nature leads to a joyless form of determinism, where the human being is lost and replaced with a series of triggers and causes and cues. How depressing.

There are some children with clear difficulties- like Tourette’s- where they have little control over themselves. But the surly teenager who is persistently rude to teachers because she can’t be bothered, isn’t helped by a label of ODD; in fact, it infantilises them, and gives them a reason not to amend their behaviours. And this isn’t a fringe issue; this is at the heart of the SEN liturgy. I have read many well-meant Individual Education Plans for statemented pupils that go along the lines of ‘Let them run around the room punching people in the Charlies if they want’ or similar. Try and run a room like that for five minutes and see how much learning gets done.

Redefining Inclusion

1. Inclusion doesn’t mean ‘in the class with everyone else.’ This is inclusion at its most witless and barbaric. It is also the default definition in many, many mainstream schools: you’re included if you’re geographically present. You might as well say that the waiters at Buckingham Palace are guests at the garden party.

2. But all this does is to create pressure-cooker classrooms where the few drain the attention of the one, to the detriment of the many. The teacher is spread thin as marmalade and lessons are carpet bombed. Learning over.

3. Inclusion like any value, cannot be intrinsically good. It must be balanced with other values, such as the rights of the class, the teacher, and the good of the child.

4. For some children that can be achieved in the mainstream classroom; modifications that can be done with relative ease: task that differentiate for different abilities; seating plans that accommodate children with hearing issues etc

5. For some children, inclusion needs to mean special provision. Overwhelmingly, this means smaller groups, separate classrooms and specially trained staff. That way they can get the attention they require without dominating the classroom. When did we forget that mainstream kids have needs too?

6. Staff trained in a meaningful way. I feel sorry for TAs. Often they are the least trained, the worst paid and the least valued members of staff, and yet the demands on them are Herculean. ‘Work a miracle with this pupil’ they are told, without being told how. Their salaries are shocking. Children with special needs don’t just need a warm body nagging them, or writing out their answers; they need teachers, trained in specific areas: EAL; Autism; reading strategies; extreme spectrum behaviour. And they need subject knowledge too, to teach meaningful content. I know many TAs who do a fantastic job. But there are some TAs who, through little fault of their own, are little more than tall buddies for their charges.

7. For inclusion to be meaningful, it has to exclude meaningfully. Good internal inclusion units are a joy: a school within a school, a Russian Doll of focus and care. Others are holding pens; three goes on the Rollercoaster and the pupils are dropped back into the circus.

Inclusion, as it stands is worse than useless in many schools. It is actively harmful. It serves no purpose other than to meet its own criteria. We’re bad at identifying special needs, and we’re terrible at meeting those needs. If we crack this, the value and efficiency of what we already do will sky rocket, I guarantee it. But we spend all our cows on magic beans.

Now that is special.

Cartoon Character: why we can never teach virtues directly

Charles Atlas, in the old comic-book adverts for body-building, promised to turn omega-males into Heroes of the Beach, if the applicant would only gamble a stamp. Now I see that attention turns as it often does not to the physical instruction of children, but to moral development, and the interior space of children’s character. A Character and Resilience summit to be held on the 6th of February,will ask the question, ‘Can we assist social mobility through the use of teaching children to have better character?‘:

‘We believe Britain needs a ‘national conversation’ on the role that focusing on character and resilience could play in narrowing the attainment gap.  In February, we are hosting a ‘summit’ on this subject, which we hope can help stimulate discussion among key practitioners, commentators and opinion formers. Our ultimate aim is to help stimulate new practical solutions or highlight and help the spread of proven existing ones.

Things like this happen all the time. Right now, somewhere, an educational conference is taking place; Powerpoints are being dutifully read from like homilies, and delegates are, Googling Dignitas. This conference is different: hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, it plans to discuss the role of character in obtaining this (I presume they mean upward mobility; these things never really specify. Can everyone go up? Does anyone have to come down? Presumably we’ll deal with that when and if we ever get there).

My experience of summits and conferences is that they are rarely discussions; they infrequently start with open minds and end up with coherent answers. The tone and direction is chosen by the guest list, and their topics, which are chosen by the event organisers. Still.

This might not be the right Tony. Actually…

This Telegraph story on the summit tickled a few epiglottises this morning, possibly because it led with a Guardian-baiting picture of Eton College’s Big Cheese, Tony Little, and the fact that he would be addressing the summit. Mention Eton to some people in education and it’s like you’ve just said their post-hypnotic kill-trigger.

There is a germ of validity to some of the responses: it isnt unreasonable to argue that, while qualities such a resilience and leadership are fine things to possess, they are potentially more easily obtained in social circumstances that arent predicated on want and economic despair. I’ve worked with children of the homeless, as well as kids whose family pets were Black Swans, and the biggest difference I’ve noticed is in the assumptions they make about themselves and the world. The comfortable see themselves as having every right to succeed, whereas Les Miserables see themselves as outsiders at a locked gate. 

Children possessed of fortitude and ambition can succeed in almost any circumstances. It is one of the greatest miracles and marvels of the human story. But character is impossible to evaluate without context. The same depth of endurance in two children from opposite poles of want can lead to a charmed life for one and perdition for the other. Some children’s lives require only a pinch of perspicacity to master; others need the whole sack. Failure is more easily learned from in circumstances where it doesnt spell the water being cut off, or the food running out. Which isnt to deride the achievements of children who had the bad manners to be born from parents in the upper tax bracket. Snobbery and prejudice, I have noticed, flows both ways in this debate, and it’s a nasty sight from any angle. 

‘Don’t make me Force-Choke you.’ ‘YES LORD VADER.’

But really, this story isn’t ‘Masters of the Universe lecture Hoi Polloi on how to take an endless deluge of shit’. It’s about the role of developing character in schools, as a means of promoting social mobility. It sounds reasonable, but it’s an enormous red herring. 

1. Character cannot be taught directly. It cannot be distilled in a predictable and regular way. This is because the intended recipients of its instruction are what I like to call ‘human beings’. We resist reduction. 

2. It can be taught indirectly, but this is still a roulette wheel of uncertainty. Treat a child cruelly and you might expect cruelty to propagate in their soul. But you might obtain a coward; a hero; a saint. We‘re as much ghost as gyroscope, whether you favour the flavour of incense or solder.   

3. Which character should be taught? What virtues should be chosen? Aristotle and Plato had a few things to say about this, so I direct the good members of the summit to their latest podcasts. I will only say that the virtues of Sparta are not the virtues of Athens, or indeed, Rugby.

4. Do teachers have good character? Can we be relied upon to be the paragons of character that children should emulate? Let’s think carefully before we answer that…

5. How do you assess it? How do you know if the program’s going well?

6. How do we train teachers to teach good character?

This boat has many holes. The only way I even remotely attempt character formation in my classes is by attempting to modify their behaviour; I inculcate (or attempt to) good habits of work. I encourage, and expect hard work. I succour them when they stumble. I encourage them to fail, then try again. I show them I value their work if they have tried hard. I reassure. I remind. I often challenge and criticise, especially if they have done anything less than their best. I praise, praise, praise. And I do this simultaneous to the teaching of my subject, and let the content be the medium.

But I never know if it will take inside them in any way. I’m a teacher. We have enough with which to contend without being tasked with the scaffolding of their souls. I barely have enough time to phone parents and mark books. Clubs, games, social activities….these are all excellent things for schools to promote, and I’m sure, aid in the development of children. But to aim at this goal as if it were something tangible, is an invitation to waste money and time in schools that could be more profitably used teaching children.

If you care about social mobility- and I am- the best levers we can give children are the best education we can possibly manage, and the methods by which such an education is obtained. Everything else, we can only hope for. Everything else belongs to them. 

Gamble someone else’s stamp.