‘Olivia is an intellectual risk-taker: grade A’

US school reports are scoring pupils on traits such as grit and sociability – could the UK follow suit?
23rd June 2017, 12:00am
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‘Olivia is an intellectual risk-taker: grade A’


School-report writing season is upon us once again.

But this year, as well as grading pupils for English, maths and other subjects, will teachers be giving Olivia an A for “intellectual risk-taking”? Or Jack a C for “takes responsibility for own actions” (he could do better)?

A number of schools in America have started including a formal assessment of pupils’ character attributes in their annual reports. According to US publication, Education Week, schools in Maryland are writing report cards on whether students meet the grade in areas such as “metacognition” (an awareness of their own learning processes), “collaboration” and “intellectual risk-taking”. And in Austin, Texas, report cards give pupils a points score across a range of “personal-development skills”, including “respects self and others”, “manages emotions constructively” and “takes responsibility for own actions”.

The cultivation of these positive attributes in children goes by many names. Sometimes it’s referred to as building character or “grit”. Others call it “social and emotional learning”, or the development of “soft” or “21st century” skills.

In England, former education secretary Nicky Morgan made a point of championing character education.

But while it’s now a fairly established practice in some schools in the US, the formal grading of character traits in school reports has not yet crossed the pond.

The closest current example may be Pendle Vale College in Lancashire, which has launched an app that allows staff to give “credits” to pupils displaying certain behaviours. If a pupil demonstrates characteristics, such as resilience or leadership, staff scan a contactless card that stores the credits on the app.

“It’s about young people recognising the sort of traits that the adults working with them value,” the school’s assistant head, Matt Renshaw, has explained.

“Resilience, for example: that’s an important skill in life that employers need and young people may not necessarily have. We want to recognise what young people are doing.”

However, it seems the education community in this country would resist attempts to go further in evaluating students’ character development by adding a quantitative element to the annual report-writing process.

‘Intangible’ attributes

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and a former head, argues that character attributes are “pretty intangible things - how do you measure teamwork and so on?”.

“The risk is that what it does is it warps extracurricular work, so that people are thinking, ‘OK, I need to top up my team-working,’ and it all becomes a bit mechanistic and utilitarian,” he says.

“As soon as we start to make them into quantifiable commodities, we actually devalue what we’re doing.”

Professor James Arthur, director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham and an international expert in character education, agrees, and is even more damning about what the US schools are attempting.

“We would never recommend that; we think that is methodologically wrong,” he says. “This area is hugely problematic in terms of measurement… We spent well over two years looking at how we could measure individual character, and we discovered it wasn’t possible.”

As well as the difficulties surrounding measurement, scoring students in this area can be hurtful to young people and their parents in a way that traditional academic grades are not, because it touches on their very personalities.

“It’s a bit like citizenship education,” Arthur says. “You can’t say ‘You’re a grade 5 character or you’re a grade 3 citizen’ - we’re all citizens and we all have characters.” He says he’s not aware of a single school in the UK, let alone England, that does this sort of thing.

Arthur says it’s still possible to evaluate schools on how well they are doing in delivering a character education, but it’s best achieved through the “professional judgement” of teachers and inspectors. He points out that Ofsted already evaluates schools on their “personal development” of students.

“You can assess the ethos of a school or the atmosphere in a school - you can certainly do that,” he says.

He also doesn’t object to what Pendle Vale College is doing. The app works a bit like a journal, he argues, getting children into the mindset of recording when they do virtuous things - an invaluable habit when it comes to writing personal statements and applying for university places and jobs.

Measuring ‘soft skills’

Even if “resilience” and “self-discipline” grade boxes are unlikely to appear on English school reports in the near future, character education is not going away.

Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, says that nearly two thirds of her organisation’s members (840 schools) reported that they had a formal character education programme in 2017 - a 10 per cent increase on the previous year’s figures.

And despite Arthur’s reservations, there will no doubt be further attempts to measure these “soft skills”. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league table, for example, will report on a new domain of “global competence”, taking in pupils’ openness towards other cultures, global mindedness and responsibility.

Barton suggests that schools in this country have nothing to fear from a continued focus on how successfully they build character - because it’s always been part of the British educational tradition.

“One basis of the UK education system has always been that it’s seen its responsibility as being beyond the classroom,” he says. “School culture at its best has always celebrated the broader skills.”

And as teachers begin penning their reports this year, Robinson - a former headteacher - points out that while a formal grade is nowhere to be seen, character has always underpinned the process.

“When I was writing school reports myself, I was always keen to ensure that there were plenty of comments giving feedback about students’ strengths, but it was always formative, positive feedback or points to work on.

“I always used to provide commentary about the child as a person.”


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