This recent report from Demos and Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham proposes that ‘Character Development’ replace the Ofsted judgement on the Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural provision in schools. They claimed this was necessary,
“to ensure the next generation of school graduates are equipped with the social and professional skills critical for them to become successful and civic-minded individuals in their adult life.”
This was followed by evidence from Wellington College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, widely covered both on BBC and the TES. They surveyed 4000 pupils and found that those with ‘grit’ are not – as is sometimes claimed – more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles as they pursue excellence. Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick), Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College, says,
“This project is an attempt to measure the more unmeasured aspects of student progress.”
What would Demos, or the University of Birmingham, or Wellington College, or the Harvard Graduate School find if they came to my school? Sans a definitive manifest of what builds character, I could propose some of the following, activities outside the formal classroom that we have made room for over the past year or two.
- The Big Read, where everyone in Year 9 was given the same novel to read, and events and competitions were organised around it.
- A Singing School. We put this on our improvement plan, and collapsed our timetable for a day for all Year 7s to sing tunes from Joseph.
- We enthused our Year 9s about First Give (successor to the Youth Philanthropy Initiative), where they competed to bid for £1000 for a local charity.
- Our Student Leadership body have raised money for victims of the Nepal earthquake.
- Our Year 10 XL club organise the Christmas party for our senior citizen neighbours.
- We do the customary amount of work experience, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and out of school sports activities.
I could add more. My colleagues work hard at this, and we have very many active citizens amongst our student body. But I do wonder how we would fare if Demos got their way and Character was given equal billing with attainment by Ofsted. I might reach for the type of evidence that catches my eye, the sort that’s not necessarily put through the validity sieve. I would note that, very often, colleagues, who have otherwise committed to an after-school session aimed at their own professional development, send their apologies because they have to work with a group of students who are in danger of missing their controlled assessment deadline. I would click on the school calendar, which has an orange bar running the length from October to June placing a ban on all Year 11 trips. (We also forbid trips for Year 10s and Year 9s from February onwards.) I would list the students who miss chunks of their Easter and half-term holidays because they are lapping up exam revision sessions, run by colleagues who are similarly missing their holidays. I might ask the question: Are we promoting the unhealthy lifestyles – the sleep deprivation, the foregoing of rest – that the grit-researchers at Harvard are keen to discover are absent?
The reason we focus so relentlessly upon attainment is obvious: for us, floor targets are never far below our feet. Our Progress 8, our Ebacc percentage, our key marginals: these measures mean everything for the status of a local authority school keen to avoid the notice of a Regional Schools Commissioner. We track our data, and we track the interventions that our data suggest we need. For many of our students, their ‘social capital’ will mean little if they don’t also have a C in English and Maths. It might be character-building to go buttock-to-buttock with a star of rugby union (as Nicky Morgan didn’t quite say), but our students will need to place their grades on their CVs before their areas of interest. And when I say ‘our students’, I imagine this is true for the vast majority across the country whose social background doesn’t already afford them a huge advantage in life.
Character is great stuff, we should all have a bit of it. But I discern another message lurking between the pages of the Demos report and the Wellington research. For those schools already attaining at the top end, ‘grit’ is a more effective way of setting their students apart from the rest. Let Ofsted also measure the quality of their debating society and the quantity of their charitable giving, the lines spoken on their stage and painted on their playing fields: then we will truly see those best prepared for a successful adult life. It won’t be the kids from my school.