It’s not often that school structures excite anyone beyond the Westminster bubble, so the secretary of state should be congratulated this week on managing to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to sign petitions and march against the White Paper proposal to turn all schools into academies by the end of 2020.
The debate over the biggest changes to the schools system in 50 years has, however, only just begun. And structures are but one of Nicky Morgan’s current preoccupations. Another biggie is character education. It’s not hard to see why. She inherited plans from her predecessor for more rigorous exams and a tough curriculum that she has now made a harsh reality. But conscious of concerns that our young people may not be able to cope with this demanding system, she has spent much of her tenure trying to find ways of making them more resilient.
Children today start out in a social environment that both coddles them and severely restricts their freedom. Outside play has been replaced by games played on a tablet in the safety of their home. A poll this week showed that three-quarters of six- to 11-year-olds are spending less time outside out of school than the daily hour that is recommended for prison inmates by the UN. This has led to a call from educationalist Sir Ken Robinson to re-examine the importance of play-based learning. “There’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits,” he points out, not entirely unreasonably.
If children do take part in sport, it is the organised kind, where they are ferried back and forth by anxious parents keen to protect them from perceived dangers. But by not being allowed to play by themselves without adult supervision, children are denied the opportunity to learn how to negotiate the hundreds of potholes and hairpin bends on the tricky road to adulthood.
By the time that they reach their teens, they are often unable to fend off the daily slings and arrows that life throws at them, thus earning them the soubriquet “the snowflake generation”. In an attempt to counter this, many schools have wholeheartedly embraced the character education advocated by Nicky Morgan.
But a psychologist and former teacher is raising concerns about character and resilience. Might we be over-reacting, he asks. Are we treating a mere blister by cutting off the foot (pages 28-34 in tomorrow's TES)?
Marc Smith believes that we need to get some perspective: resilience, he says, is something that is developed in extreme circumstances. It is a reaction to severe adversity. A poor grade or a looming exam is not either of those things.
In fact, he says, what it is that pupils lack is not resilience but academic buoyancy: the ability to bounce back from minor setbacks, to see them as a series of challenges that can be overcome and not as a personal attack.
How do you teach that? Rather interestingly, you don’t. It’s not learning skills that will help pupils, but instead changing the environment in which they operate.
Nicky Morgan is right: it seems that structures are the answer. Though it’s not macro structures that are important, but micro ones. These normalise failure, rather than speak only the language of success, emphasise personal, not academic goals and offer help, not promote fear.
In fact, what we need to give young people are some structures that foster academic buoyancy. You could call it supported autonomy.
This is an article from the 25 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here