Teach children a lesson in good character

The Telegraph, 21/09/14, HMC member, Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, commends the chief inspector for speaking out about behaviour in schools but advises that schools need more than discipline.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the pugnacious Chief Inspector of Schools, has yet again put his finger on the pulse of the nation, daring to say things that most know are true but few are brave enough to say.

This week he will publish an Ofsted report claiming that low-level disruption in British schools is damaging the quality of learning and the atmosphere of school life. Teachers are too often intimidated and are unable to teach properly. Students who want to learn are thwarted from doing so, and an atmosphere of disorder permeates the classrooms and corridors in schools across the country. Wilshaw will criticise head teachers for not applying strict enough punishments to inculcate proper discipline.

I have taught for more than 30 years, and run schools for over 20. Two things are entirely obvious to me: one is that without real discipline – where students know who is in charge – learning is severely hampered and the dominant culture is determined by aggressive and loud-mouthed students rather than by the teachers. The second truth is that too many schools are not nearly disciplined enough, and teachers often feel ill-supported by their senior teams.

Nothing worthwhile in life can be achieved without discipline, obedience to authority and hard work. Few institutions are more disciplined than the Royal Ballet or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Companies with lax regulations do not flourish.

Discipline has to be learnt at home and carried out at school. And if there is none in the classroom, then learning won’t take place. Unless students are utterly clear where the boundaries lie, the more timid members of the class will not contribute for fear of ridicule or harassment. The inescapable irony is that liberal and liberating learning only occurs when there is structure and order.

Everything begins with the head and the school leader. If the head does not ensure that good behaviour prevails, that one’s students are punctual, uniform is properly worn and no one speaks out of turn, then the school will not function properly. The best heads are constantly out walking the corridors and know exactly what is going on in their classrooms; the worst heads spend all their time in their offices or out of school attending conferences. They know neither their students nor their parents.

So, bravo Michael Wilshaw! Let’s hope that your words are listened to and acted upon, and that change does come to all our classrooms.

However, in one respect, the chief inspector does fall short. In laying so much stress on discipline and compliance, he is ignoring the more important ingredient of a well-ordered school, which is self-control and intrinsic good behaviour. The problem with a school in which there is good behaviour merely for fear of punishment is that the students learn little about life and the difference between right and wrong. They do not learn about the human qualities that make up a good society, and they leave school with little awareness of personal responsibility.

Good schools need to couple firm discipline with a very strong emphasis on values and the development of good character. All students need to be taught the difference between good and bad, the importance of punctuality, respect for peers and adults, and the importance of kindness and consideration.

Michael Gove was an outstanding education secretary who had a profound passion for ensuring that all students, regardless of disadvantage, should have an academic curriculum. But it was only just before he left the Education Department in July, that he realised the central importance of character. He came to recognise that the best state schools lay a heavy emphasis on the development of citizenship, and that the teaching of character and values is not the enemy but the ally of a good academic education.

The best state schools across the country – such as the King Solomon Academy in Paddington, or Kings Langley School in Hertfordshire – all know this, and avidly emphasise it. Their classrooms are turning out academically successful students as well as ones who know how to behave and contribute to society beyond school.

Children learn much less from what adults say than from what they see them doing. It is essential, thus, that teachers and support staff provide an excellent example for students (and another reason why going on strike is so appalling). Older students, too, should be much more fully used across schools, given good responsibility for looking after younger students. Teachers and institutions tend to infantilise their older students, not realising that they are capable of doing far more to contribute to the good running of the school than is often realised.

Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, is showing every sign of understanding the importance of the development of good character, and is holding conversations with professionals with a track-record in this field. Here is a golden opportunity vastly to improve behaviour in our schools. So two cheers for Michael Wilshaw for your clarion call, and a third cheer if you start talking more about character and not just punishment.

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