A Texan approach to values education is making an impression on UK teachers reports Karen Gold
Would your headteacher dress up as a rabbit for the day? Would you telephone a parent from the classroom during a lesson, to congratulate them on their child's behaviour? If you think "probably not", then that was exactly what Elizabeth Bartley, citizenship co-ordinator at Ken Stimpson Community School in Peterborough thought when she visited the Character Counts programme running in schools throughout Texas.
The programme was devised in 1993 by a group of American teachers and professors of education - prompted by the horrifying high school shootings in Columbine, says one of its originators, Dr Nat Cooper of Lubbock Christian University. Founded on the statement that "young people become their best selves by making choices based on ethical principles", it has since spread across the US and into Europe (more than 500 schools use it in Siberia).
It defines "good character" as comprising six traits or "pillars" - trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship, arguing that these cross all nationalities and cultures - and it encourages families, schools and youth organisations to overtly teach and reward children who model their behaviour on these six pillars.
Combined with the steak'n'gun culture of Texas, all this seemed rather too overt to the group of UK teachers who went on an international professional development bursary to see what it was about. But when they got into schools, says Elizabeth Bartley, they began to change their minds: "The schools were very calm, there was no graffiti or vandalism. And the students were much more self-assured, much more able than ours to communicate their feelings and make their voices heard."
She returned to Ken Stimpson, an 11 to 18 comprehensive still smarting from Ofsted criticism of its pupils' behaviour, determined to try out the scheme in an English setting. In autumn 2001, the school decided to teach it to its Year 7 intake in a half-term series of drama and PSHE lessons, and to introduce the six pillars as a touchstone for behaviour throughout the school.
Posters and displays went up in every classroom and corridor; staff would refer specifically to breach or fulfilment of the six pillars when operating the school's rewards sanctions (stamps in pupil logs, rather than the prize of seeing the principal in a rabbit costume).
As staff and students began to speak the same consistent moral language, so the atmosphere in the school changed, says Elizabeth Bartley: "In a history lesson, if they were doing King John, the teacher might say 'Was he a good king?' and then ask if people respected him, if he was responsible, if he was someone you could trust.
"If I am teaching relationships in PSHE with Year 8, we will talk about who has responsibility in a relationship, about how important honesty and fairness are in relationships. They keep going back to the same six key ideas, and being able to express themselves in terms of those six key ideas.
"If a student interrupts me, I will say 'Do you think that's showing respect?' We haven't changed lesson plans, or schemes of work or reward systems; we just stick to the six pillars and they really understand what they are. They talk about people they respect, about how someone earns your respect, how you feel if you lose someone's respect. It's a language thing.
I think students always want to behave well, but they don't always know what 'well' means. Now if two kids are having a disagreement, you can just go back to the six pillars and say: 'What's going on here? Why is this?'
Maybe one of them told a secret they had promised not to tell. In that case they are not being trustworthy. It's about them understanding what that actually means and giving them the language to describe it."
Within six months, she says, the atmosphere at Ken Stimpson was different.
A return visit by Ofsted praised it as a "harmonious community" with high standards of behaviour, where "the emphasis placed on personal development and citizenship permeates learning in most subjects".
And that is certainly true of the considerate, thoughtful Year 7 class at Ken Stimpson, who spent a citizenship lesson listening to Dr Cooper when he recently visited UK schools to promote Character Counts. He told them a story of a 12-year-old Florida boy who successfully campaigned for homeless people to be given left-over school dinners, saving tax-payers millions of dollars and abolishing health and safety legislation in the process.
He also impressed upon them the need for businesses to have "good employees who are honest; who keep their promises". He did not mention (in the era of multinational corruption scandals such as Enron) the need for honest, promise-keeping businesses. Nor did he hint that health-and-safety legislation might ever be useful. In a statement which some might question, he argued that the massacre at Columbine was entirely the result of one individual's moral decision, and nothing to do with the availability of guns: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people. I have a son who has eight or nine guns, but they are all locked away and he has never had an accident with them."
So is this merely a cultural difference? Or is there an ideological framework behind Character Counts, which implies that individual moral decisions are made entirely separately from community structures - that there is, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, "no such thing as society"?
Schools inviting Dr Cooper to visit, or thinking of adopting Character Counts, might want to think about these questions at the same time as pursuing, like Elizabeth Bartley, the undoubtedly positive effect of a clear statement of shared values on the Ken Stimpson community: "I think students need to know that you do have to be responsible for decisions that you make and that nobody ever forces you to do anything. You can't blame your behaviour on anybody else. It is not acceptable to say 'It's not my fault, he was doing it as well'.
"I think this works because it's very simple, very easy to put into place.
It's not a curriculum, it's an ethos, and I can't think of anyone who would say 'I don't want my child to be respectful, I don't want my child to be responsible'. I have never had anyone saying 'please don't teach my child to be honest'. They are just such simple principles."