Why all this talk of character and resilience education is totally topsy turvy

In 2007, a new National Curriculum was born. It wasn’t perfect, but as a teacher and leader in Secondary English I liked it.

It was largely skills based, with the scope for teachers to use their professional judgement to build programmes of study which suited their students and their schools. There was lots of potential for cross-curricular work, with signs that we might be able to move away from the subject-shaped boxes that learning was often inefficiently forced into. The arts were promoted both as subjects in their own right and as vehicles for learning elsewhere. And at its heart were the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) which aimed to look beyond the needs of school to set students up for a lifetime of learning, complementing the older initiative of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Fresh creativity was injected into our pedagogical approaches as teachers focused on ways to engage students as active learners in the curriculum. Couple all this with a government who had raised the status of teachers beginning with the ‘Those who can, teach’ campaign back in 2000, and you had an environment that was full of potential and ripe for further development of teaching and learning.

Fast-forward three years to 2010 and the Tories, albeit in coalition, were in power. I remember distinctly the sombre mood amongst the senior leadership team and the rest of the staff at my school as we mourned for the impact this would have on education. We were not wrong: under Gove’s watch, PLTS and SEAL have been scrapped, the arts have seen their funding slashed and have been reduced in status to the extent that they are being sidelined in many schools, speaking and listening has been removed from the sphere of assessment, active learning methods have been denigrated and teachers have been continually undermined and demotivated. All this in favour of an easily quantifiable facts-based curriculum and exam-based assessment that will begin as young as four and continue throughout children’s school career.

And now we have a cross-party group saying ‘there is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills’, that schools must be ‘more than just exam factories’. They call for the ‘requirement to participate in extra-curricular activities [to be] a formal aspect of teacher’s contract of employment’ – something which fits very conveniently with Gove’s plans for an extended school day. Tristram Hunt agrees that ‘instilling [character and resilience] in young people “should not be left to chance”‘, calling for ‘a holistic approach that goes beyond extra-curricular activities and into the classroom’.

But aren’t they all forgetting something?

The only reason we don’t have these so-called ‘soft’ skills at the heart of our curriculum is because Gove ripped them out. All of the aspects of character and resilience that the APPG assert are so important in their manifesto were already embedded in the curriculum through SEAL and PLTS, given life in different forms by schools using the structure of Building Learning Power, the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile or numerous other well-researched and intelligently put together schemes.

Teachers do not need to be told that we need to build character and resilience in our most vulnerable children in order to level the playing field, and, as with so much else, they certainly don’t need the private sector to tell them how to do it. Despite the attacks on their own resilience by an increasingly unsupportive government, it is something they do on a daily basis, both within and beyond the curriculum. In lessons it is something they do through facilitating group work, through encouraging independent learning, through supporting students to set their own goals and structuring the ways in which they can achieve them. It is something that evidences itself particularly strongly in arts subjects – drama or media studies for example – where students work on a creative project for an extended period of time, often far surpassing their own or others’ expectations. Though with the threat to the place of the arts in the curriculum, and without the clarity of purpose offered by PLTS and associated schemes, it’s going to get harder and harder to do all this.

I realise I’m treading dangerously close to the territory of advocating ‘trendy left-wing ideology‘ in the name of a more holistic and human education system. And for that I make no apology. It’s not easy to empower children to take charge of their own learning journeys, even harder to demonstrate to those who do not understand what it is they’re learning in a snapshot of sometimes-rowdy group discussion, but all of my experience as a teacher has taught me that a child-centred approach is one we should aspire to. There is a wealth of research that backs this up, indicating that collaborative learning and actively engaging students in the learning process can be an extremely efficient and effective way to improve achievement. Rarely do I believe there will be a period of twenty minutes in a classroom where students will be ‘rightly passive‘, and I think Wilshaw has started down a very dangerous road by saying passivity is ok.

Whether or not Gove will entertain a further revision of approaches to teaching and learning in schools to embed character and resilience education in the classroom or, more likely, use the APPG’s manifesto as fuel for his drive towards longer school days, I’m finding the lack of joined-up thinking in the world of education policy making frustrating to the extreme.

Being used as a political pawn is destroying our education system. Why throw out a raft of extensively researched and sound initiatives before they’ve had a chance to embed themselves, only to then have to work out how to put back in what you’ve lost? Babies and bathwater come to mind…

In the longer term I definitely believe we need to look towards a way of running our education system that is beyond party political point scoring. But in the meantime, and especially whilst character and resilience education is on the table, I just wish Gove et al would look back in that bathwater to see if there any babies they can nurture back to life without needing to start the whole process from scratch.

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