Developing Character

Last week the DfE announced grants totalling £6million to schools or organisations with plans to help students develop desirable character traits "such as resilience and respect". If you ignore the subtext elsewhere in the article publicising the grants that character traits are predominantly developed through rugby, fencing, and military activities, the idea is a good one. We do, as an education system, place too much emphasis on skills and knowledge and too little on character and virtue.

But dig a little deeper and the limitations of this kind of intervention become apparent.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are expecting character-development to be yet another additional, external add-on to an education system whose timetables are already overflowing. We are expecting character-development to come from one after-school club running for one term by someone who is not a teacher, rather than it coming from something intrinsic to the daily education a child experiences.

This is typical of the micromanagement endemic in the education system. The thinking runs thus: notice a deficiency (in this case character development), then add something on to plug the gap. It's an easy way of approaching problems, but it's not the best.

Surely a better, higher-impact way to encourage the development of desirable character traits would be for schools and classrooms to be set up and run in a way which, 30 hours per week, developed respect and resilience in its students? If a culture of respect and resilience was built into the fabric of every lesson, every interaction, and every minute of school life, the traits developed would be that much more entrenched and transformative.

But of course, to encourage respect and resilience in children means radically reforming the way we run our schools. Resilience only develops when yo've been knocked back, and our current system of measurement requires that every child be constantly moving forwards, never stagnating or struggling. Respect only develops insofar as you are respected, and that is getting harder to do in a system which views students as little more than statistics.

And more fundamentally, if we want children to become resilient and respectful, we need teachers who model those same qualities. But at present, teachers are just not allowed to. They cannot demonstrate resilience because a culture of fear exists in which admitting to mistakes is not permitted, and they cannot model respect because respect means listening, hearing, and changing. Teachers are required to model qualities of almost superhuman foresight and tolerance, but not resilience or respect. 

We want our children to become creative, respectful, resilient people, but without role-models in the teachers they spend 30 hours a week with, this will just not happen. And without a change in the culture of education, teachers will not have the space to be the all-too-human role models that children need.