Metrics are marvellous but they don’t drive real character change

Simon Hinchliffe (8)Character education is back on the national agenda following an address by the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. Great. Common sense suggests this is wholly laudable. All schools would surely choose to exercise what agency they have to foster knowledgeable, capable and characterful (in a good way) people. This is the very essence of a rounded education. But…

… and I might be overthinking this… is there not a paradox here?

Young people are not the fragile ‘snowflakes’ they are too readily portrayed to be, argued Mr Hinds before advancing that children today have "much more confidence, ambition and gumption" than when he was a child. Yet, Mr Hinds, rekindling a national initiative of Nicky Morgan, one of his predecessors, intends that UK youth receive a coast-to-coast turbo boost in this area of their personal development (note the responsibility on schools to do this and the absence of a wider focus on upbringing).

So which is it? Are our kids measuring up in terms of character and ‘gumption’ or do they need a national rescue package led by the DfE? Is there a mixed message here? The question is perhaps academic, Mr Hinds is moving and looking to extend to maintained schools the approach taken in the independent sector that boosts confidence and general ‘well-roundedness’. I am grateful that the good work of schools like Bradford Grammar is being recognised, but I am concerned that the sterling efforts of my colleagues in the maintained sector might not be.

Mr Hinds said he would be appointing an "advisory group" of "leaders and experts in the field", including figures drawn from "the arts, sports and the voluntary sector". The group will feedback to Mr Hinds in September with an ambition to action new initiatives in 2020. As part of this work, a set of measures, modelled on the Gatsby benchmarks for careers guidance, will be developed for schools “to use so they can deliver their own approach to developing character, to assess themselves [or be open to assessment by…?] on how they’re doing".

In this statement, I cannot help but perceive our continued national obsession with measurement in education and an underlying misunderstanding, I believe, in its utility and value. The policies and practices set running by the new public management paradigm of yesteryear still drive us towards a flawed assumption that target setting will of itself drive system wide improvement in education. Mr Hinds might realise Mrs Morgan’s earlier ambitions for National Character Awards - metrics and ceremony, sticks and carrots - but what additional practical action can schools afford to take that will actually make a difference to the real world experiences of children?

It is hugely encouraging to hear that Mr Hinds wishes to promote the arts, sports and volunteering – the cornerstones of the co-curricular programme at Bradford Grammar. At the same time however, decisions made by the DfE are being upheld as drivers of curriculum narrowing. Something about left hands, right hands and talking?

I blogged last year about the reported downward spiral of arts subjects in schools. More recently, it was lamented that the “very existence of music education” is under threat because the numbers of music teachers and students opting for GCSE have declined, according to the findings of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education. Their report points out: “The government is, therefore, wrong to claim that music uptake at GCSE has remained broadly stable: in fact, using their own figures, the proportion of GCSE pupils taking music has fallen by almost a fifth since 2014-15.” Pressures on funding and DfE accountability measures are blamed, again.

In this context, how should we view this latest push for character education – benchmarks and awards - when curriculum breath and opportunities for wider personal development are reported to be diminishing?  Perhaps everything will be okay? The Yorkshire Post observed that: “Contrary to his view that pupils from more affluent backgrounds are more resilient because their families can afford private education, or extra-curricular activities, this intervention does a disservice to all those students who have been, and continue, to be educated in the state system.

“The overwhelming majority will mature into model citizens because of their character – and the values instilled into them by their families and teachers. They’re also resourceful because they’ve had to strive for higher academic standards while the Government has, at the same time, been squeezing school budgets.”

The combined good intentions and tireless care of families and teachers everywhere to give kids a good start in life cannot be valued highly enough. However, the ‘training at altitude’ image in the Yorkshire Post does little to calm anxieties. It is patently obvious that all our children deserve better. The values of a broad liberal education are cherished by the vast majority of people in our nation. If we could deliver on them universally, we would not hesitate to do so. Personally, I don’t see how the establishment of targets and systems of measurement, even spangled recognition of success, can replace a properly resourced curriculum that encourages opportunities, new experiences, risk taking and enables young people to grow from the experience of success and failure.

All schools strive to do this. Those of us like Bradford Grammar, who work collaboratively in partnerships of various kinds, encouraged by the 2018 Joint Understanding between the sector and the DfE, are in a strong position to deliver diverse and meaningful opportunities for character education.

Good character will continue to be encouraged in all kinds of schools. I am not sure it can or should be benchmarked. I would feel more comfortable going forwards with a national narrative that focussed primarily on processes and properly resourced curriculum programmes rather than outcomes and awards.