Well, thank goodness some of our politicians have finally stepped in and told us how we can develop good character. After all, what better models of strong moral courage and well-rounded behaviour are there for our young people to aspire to than our political leaders?
According to these politicians’ official line, it’s not all down to schools to develop this moral courage and well-rounded behaviour. Well, that’s what I hoped for until they announced that education secretary Damian Hinds would be setting up an advisory group to help find out how to “best support schools in their work to build character”; so perhaps it is going to be left to schools after all.
But how do we build this so-called good character? Well from sport, creativity, performance, volunteering and work, of course – the same opportunities that have been squeezed out of schools since long ago.
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One would have thought the official advisory group might have come up with a solution that involves decent funding for schools. As teachers in secondary schools see their timetables increasingly fill, with group sizes growing and continuous changes to the curriculum, there is scant time left in their busy weeks for providing the extracurricular opportunities that once existed; especially when the environment is one where exam success has been the centre of external accountability.
Accountability vs character education
There was a time, too, when primary schools saw many of those character-building strands as central to their work. For years, primary schools were filled with lunchtime and after-school activities run by teachers and free-of-charge, because teachers know the value of such things. Now teachers instead need to play catch-up on marking during their lunchbreaks, and leave writing lesson plans and action plans to after school.
Gone, too, is the time and resources that were once available in the timetable for creative activities. Just ask any leader with a challenging intake about the risks of taking time out of the curriculum for an end-of-year performance, or look at the dwindling availability of musical instruments or peripatetic teachers to teach them. The funding for music services in local authorities has disappeared along with the advisory support. Instead, these once central tenets of primary education have been sidelined by the drive for attainment and results in the narrow core subjects.
The impacts aren’t even limited to school time. In the past, it wouldn’t be unusual to find a teacher running a brownie pack on an evening or perhaps leading a Duke of Edinburgh Awards course over a wet weekend. Who now would take yet more time away from their family to spend on these voluntary roles, when the day job already demands so much? Until we really get a grip on workload, it’s going to be hard to see more children joining clubs when there’s no one there to run them.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it seemed that the government had some idea about how to tackle these problems in order to allow actual development of character, but it looks as though it is intent on only compounding the problems. Why provide funding to tackle the challenges that schools face when you can instead develop a set of benchmarks to judge them against? Just what schools need – another hurdle to fall down upon.
It’s no longer enough for your school to achieve good results, but now schools will also have the task of ensuring that students join the Scouts, play in the orchestra and complete a triathlon. But don’t worry, the hard work and effort will be character-building for you.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979