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True Grit

The Department for Education has launched an award for the best character education in schools (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfe-character-awards-application-window-now-open). 
I am tempted to enter Birkdale just to see what happens.  Despite the well-meaning success criteria set out on the entry page I think that objectively choosing a worthy winner may be tricky.  Perhaps mindful of this the DfE have given organisations only 23 days to enter although a £15000 cheque is not to be sniffed at so if I find an idle few minutes …

After many years of a relentless and dishearteningly narrow focus on percentages of A* to C grades at GCSE, politicians have finally responded to the rather obvious truth that certain character traits are at least as important for students’ future success and happiness as examination certificates.  The DoE thinks that the following traits are worthy of development:

  • perseverance, resilience and grit
  • confidence and optimism
  • motivation, drive and ambition
  • neighbourliness and community spirit
  • tolerance and respect
  • honesty, integrity and dignity
  • conscientiousness, curiosity and focus

Of course the question of which traits should be included in the list and who should decide on such a matter occurs immediately.  I would have liked to have seen a section for humility, kindness and patience but these are traits not often associated with the DfE.
No doubt, if character education remains at the top of the political education agenda, after the election then definitions, criteria and numerical scales will be developed and applied to students who will be assigned grades or numbers for different aspects of character.  These will then be averaged across a school year and published in league tables allowing parents to compare schools on the basis of how resilient or tolerant or optimistic their students are.  Year by year the press, politicians and educationalists will pore over the statistics trying to understand regional variations in confidence or why this year’s cohort of students is 0.1% more tolerant than last year’s group.
As Birkdale places, and has always placed, great emphasis on developing ‘character’, more usually expressed as the desire to turn out well-rounded people, I can perhaps offer some insight into this matter.  In the words of part of the school’s mission statement, ‘We aim to give all pupils a strong academic education, while developing them as whole individuals prepared for their wider role as responsible citizens willing to serve the community’. 
Firstly it is perfectly possible to achieve both excellent examination results and produce well-rounded students; there is no dichotomy between high academic standards and character education and in fact determined and resilient people tend to secure better examination grades for obvious reasons.
Secondly, character education cannot be taught through explicitly focused lessons.  Timetabling innovations which schedule a lesson on perseverance for 14 year olds followed by a double lesson of Maths are doomed to failure although the latter might well help students to learn perseverance as well as curiosity.  What would one do in a ‘perseverance’ lesson?  The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, would do well to avoid the temptation to simply add character to the already overloaded National Curriculum or to enlarge the list of ‘British Values’ now to be instilled in young minds.
Thirdly, developing character requires students to feel part of a community and to have a wide range of opportunities.  Real communities always strengthen honesty, integrity and dignity as individuals absorb the collective values which are regularly and systematically articulated.  Participating in sports teams, musical ensembles, drama productions, Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and so on all encourage perseverance, resilience and grit.  Charitable fund raising and volunteering promote community spirit.  Assemblies provide opportunities for shared experience and reflection, engendering some sense of tolerance and respect.  Most schools are aspirational environments and would want their charges to aim high and find real drive and ambition.
Fourthly, developing character requires students to have excellent relationships with skilled teachers: at Birkdale the Form Tutors actively encourage students to be involved with appropriate activities that will build particular character strengths in the individual.  A shy student may be encouraged to try some debating or public speaking to develop confidence; equally a brash peer who finds it difficult to recognise the contribution of others may be helped to participate in a choir and experience the power of collective endeavour. 
The picture at the top is of the character Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ 2010 film adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit.  This is an image I am reminded of whenever politicians begin to talk about ‘grit’.  Disturbingly, whilst the eponymous Rooster certainly possesses grit his conceit, heavy drinking and often uncertain loyalty are probably not what the Education Secretary had in mind.

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