We are in danger of turning our schools into a pile of schmaltz. It sounds like I’m channelling good old, stiff-upper-lip Michael Gove, but on the contrary, it’s an initiative by his successor as Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, that has caused me to break into ranting. The new plan is to create a national schools competition known as the ‘Character Awards’. These awards – of no less than £15,000 each – will be given to up to 27 schools who develop grit, character and resilience among their pupils. A further prize of £20,000 will go to the very best school at developing character.
Where does the schmaltz come in? Well, can you imagine the awards ceremony? It will be like one of those awful television programmes with Carol Vorderman where everybody gets terribly emotional as little Jimmy shows how he’s overcome dreadful hardship (his parents couldn’t get him into the right catchment area) to achieve six GCSEs, or as a gang from inner-city-wherever put their energies into developing a demo tape of a song praising world peace which the whole school is now singing.
I hope it won’t be like that. I’m all for grit, character and resilience (just channelling Mr Gove again, there), but how on earth are the appointed panel of ‘education experts’ going to judge these awards? And as the awards are for the whole school, not the pupil, will there be some sort of tallying up? Grit: the greatest number of pupils who managed not to skive off games during heavy snow? Resilience: the most students who came in on time the morning after the prom? Character: the greatest number prepared to have the salad at lunchtime for the sake of their health, despite the fact that chips are on offer?
The Education Secretary has also allocated almost £5 million to eight projects in England to help pupils learn resilience, self-confidence and respect. These build on projects last year, when more than 52,000 pupils took part in schemes run and designed by former military personnel to instill a ‘military ethos’ in schools. I’m definitely for giving pupils the chance to meet people from the all-too-real world who have faced difficult and frightening challenges. Those who have served their country will undoubtedly be able to make young people think about their own values and ambition.
Schooling absolutely should not be about achieving high exam results to the detriment of everything else – and the aim of developing a well-rounded approach to education is laudable and is something which has perhaps got lost in the drive towards performance.
But can you measure the more subtle qualities of ‘character’ or develop national ‘grit’ through a competition? Against what criteria will the panel judge entries from schools which could range from tiny rural places to huge urban comprehensives to wealthy independent schools with the resources to take children on challenging adventures?
Surely this is something which individual schools should seek to develop within their own walls and not be striving towards only to add another tick to their public profile by winning a competition.