James Perkins stands in the centre of the hall. “Who wants to learn to make fire?” he asks.
Immediately, the pupils surround him with their hands up. Then, they troop out to the school field, and watch as Mr Perkins instructs them in the art of fire-starting. “Are your neckers tucked in?” he says. “Tuck your neckers into your jumpers.”
The 25 children gathered round the fire pit are all in neckerchiefs. They are members of a Cub Scout pack, set up at Belmont Castle Academy, in the Essex town of Grays, as part of a new government scheme.
“Schools are being asked to teach character education, British values,” says Liam Burns, head of policy and public affairs for the Scout Association in the UK. “And those young people who are Scouts report, across the board, more character skills, more confidence.”
The Scout Association has been awarded £300,000 by the Department for Education to run character-education pilot schemes in six primaries, all in the Midlands and the South of England.
Three of these schools – Belmont Castle among them – offer scouting as an after-school club. The other three run scouting sessions during the school day.
Mr Perkins drops another log into the fire. “We’re going to make dough balls,” he says. “Does anyone know what dough balls are?”
Hands shoot up around the fire. “Balls made of dough?”
“Yes,” Mr Perkins says. He smiles. “The clue’s in the name.”
Mr Perkins is a learning mentor at Belmont Castle, and this particular Cub pack’s Akela, or leader. “I’ve always been a bit outdoorsy,” he explains. “So, when they said, ‘Would you be interested in running a Scout pack?’ I said, ‘Yeah’.”
‘An exciting secret society’
However, he has had to learn that leading a Cub pack is not the same as delivering a lesson. “For a lot of the teaching staff who help me out, it was a bit of a jarring key change,” Mr Perkins says. “You have to take the teaching head off, and think, ‘We have to let them take their own risks, find their own way to do things’.
“Some of them have to bite back that professional instinct of, ‘No, stop that and sit down’. Instead, you have to say, ‘Yes. Give it a go. See what happens’.”
But it is not only the staff who have had to adjust to the new setting. “Sometimes, when we’re at Cubs, kids will call me ‘Mr Perkins’ by mistake, rather than ‘Akela’,” he says. “And I’ll give them a funny look.
“But they took to it almost immediately. They’ll see me in the corridor and give me the Cub salute, as though we’re part of some secret organisation.”
Around the fire, pupils are kneading flour and sugar in water, and then wrapping the resulting dough around a stick. Mr Perkins paces around the group, watching as they hold the sticks over the flames. “If it drops in the fire, it’s lost to the great fire god,” he says.
Belmont Castle headteacher Mark Jones says that, since the Cub pack was launched in September, there has been a noticeable change in the children.
“Some of these children used to be sent to my deputy for misbehaviour on a regular basis, particularly at breaktime and lunchtime,” he says.
“We hardly see that at all now. This whole idea of working as a pack, as one – that really rubs off on them. They’re learning skills in teamwork, resilience, perseverance, determination. They’re more attentive in lessons. Scouts teaches them listening skills, but through fun activities.”
Some of these activities involve a clear pedagogical content: cutting pizza into quarters, for example, helped pupils to learn about fractions. Other activities teach more subtly.
“When we did rock climbing, I had to overcome my fears,” says nine-year-old Angel Smith. “Once I climbed a bit, I thought, ‘I could have done that before.’ It makes me think I could do other things that I’m scared of, like being able to make friends more.”
And, Mr Burns explains, it is significant that most of these activities take place on school premises. “It’s giving them a chance to be successful in an environment that they might not associate with success,” he says. “And they’re doing it in front of teachers.”
Squatting in front of the fire, 10-year-old Mateusz Mikolajczyk rotates his dough ball slowly over the flames, to prevent it from charring. “Scouts isn’t so stressful as school,” he says. “At school, when you do some work, you need to be finished on time. But here, we’ve got lots of time to do one thing. You don’t have to concentrate on lots of things at the same time.”
In lessons, Mr Perkins says, Mateusz is bright but unfocused; in Cubs, “he brings a terrifyingly sharp focus to what he does. And that’s seeping into school life now as well”.
Mr Perkins pauses to examine one of the children’s dough balls, and pronounces it cooked. Then he stands up and looks around the school field.
“When I was growing up, a lot of after-school life would be climbing trees with friends, that sort of thing,” he says. “That’s not so much part of society now. So we have given them a way to do that.”
Teaching true grit
The Scouting Association was one of 14 bodies to receive a share of a £3.5 million fund, allocated by the Department for Education for projects designed to instil character and resilience in pupils.
The other recipients included Premier Rugby Limited, the organisation that represents English top-flight rugby clubs, which received £556,494 for a classroom-based physical activity programme. St John Ambulance was awarded more than £250,000 to train around 100,000 pupils in first aid.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that developing children’s character – including grit and resilience – is as important as teaching them to pass exams.
Last month, she wrote in TES: “These traits are key to succeeding in life, and I want to ensure that we are creating the conditions for everyone to proactively gain them.”
A report published last month by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development claimed that Britain was likely to fall behind Asian countries because its schools were failing to teach character and values. These skills, the report said, would be vital in later life.
However, Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has raised doubts about this focus on character. “You can’t teach grit generically,” he said. “Criminals have more grit than most people.”