It’s strange how ideas that have simmered in the policy undergrowth, sometimes seeming to have been totally extinguished, suddenly burst out like bush fire. A dedicated group of academics, policy makers, charities and educational practitioners have long argued for the importance of character development in children’s life chances. Over the last twenty years, as evidence suggesting the importance and teach-ability of character has grown, there have been flurries of interest from the political and media mainstream, but the respective reform models pushed by the last Labour Government and Michael Gove either side-lined this agenda or positively worked against it.
We may look back on this week as unexpected tipping point with first the All Party Parliamentary Group report on social mobility and now, today, a speech on character by Labour’s thoughtful and self-assured education spokesperson Tristram Hunt. I welcome this shift and if it does mark the beginning of a genuine change in the direction of debate and policy the people who have ploughing this furrow for many years, often with little official encouragement (Anthony Seldon and Yvonne Roberts for example), deserve recognition for their efforts.
But there are both gaps in the evidence and weaknesses in the argument which need to be addressed if its current prominence is to be sustained. One weakness lies in relying too heavily on poor quality or contested evidence. As outlined by the all-Party Group and Hunt there are plenty of studies that support both the value of character and the idea that there are certain educational practices that help to instil it.
But despite some areas of promise, the gaps in the evidence base here are substantial: research shows strong associations between pupil attainment and certain character traits (such as self-control or positive attitudes towards schooling), but robust, causal evidence of impact is much more limited. Most studies look at single non-cognitive skills in isolation, and over relatively short timeframes, whereas the evidence is much weaker on the long-term impact of such programmes. As a recent review for the Education Endowment Foundation concludes, the evidence shows that no single non-cognitive skill is the crucial ingredient or “silver bullet” that predicts positive outcomes for young people.
Furthermore, as Professor Robert Coe patiently explains in this brilliant lecture the biggest thing we know about new educational practice is that little or nothing is proven to have the kind of major, consistent, system-wide effect we might hope for. If a dedicated team of researchers and practitioners try something out in a context in which they are motivated and focussed there is a pretty good chance it will have an effect. Roll that same idea out across a whole system made up of people with different levels of talent and motivation, and against the backdrop of varying contexts and competing pressures, and the clear and hopeful findings from the pilots turn into contested and marginal evidence of change at scale.
Also, even if the argument for character is won, there will still be fierce argument about what it comprises and how it should be instilled. [LB1] For traditionalists the emphasis will be on hard work, responsibility and respect for authority, all of which they will say can be transmitted through a fairly conventional pedagogy, while for progressives the emphasis will be more on emotional resilience, self-confidence and creativity which requires children to have space for self-expression and to feel engaged as partners in learning.
The evidence problem is exacerbated by the tendency in both the All Party paper and, from what I can see, the Hunt speech to treat character development as a means to an end – greater social mobility and better life chances for the individual (usually defined as earning power). But with both the evidence and the concept itself contested, the advocates of character development need to admit to their normative starting bias. Surely part of the reason we want a particular idea of character instilled is because we have an underlying view of what it is to be a good citizen and live a full life. Politicians and researchers tend to fight shy of value based arguments, worrying that they will seem ideological or arrogant, but to hide our beliefs behind instrumentality and weak evidence is ultimately self-defeating.
Finally, I freely admit there is no evidence either for a hunch I have about a missing element of most lists of measures to instil character in the young. What about the nature of educational institutions themselves? On the whole, character is not something we consciously learn, it is imbibed from our experiences and relationships, which take place in the context of formal (schools, colleges, sports clubs) and informal (families, close knit friendship networks) organisations. Surely, therefore, the character of those organisations and institutions is an important part of the story?
Take just one dimension of this: the RSA has often worked with school leaders in areas experiencing low standards. Speaking to them a difference is often immediately observable, between those whose attitude to challenge it to take personal responsibility and to be optimistic and those who have a well-developed script of self-pity, impotence and blaming others. How likely is a school, which is led by someone who exudes a mixture of self-pity and complacency, to be the kind of place that – whatever its curricular or extra-curricular offer – teaches characteristics like self–confidence and initiative? Similarly, too few teachers seem confident either constructively to challenge or be constructively challenged by their colleagues. We know a big issue for teenage boys men is brittle self-esteem, I wonder how often they sense the same fragility in those supposed to be their elders and betters?
Unlike one-off policies which often fail when taken out of their experimental setting, aiming for whole schools to be intelligent, character-forming communities focusses on the institutional context itself.
The renewed interest in character is welcome but we need to understand why it has proved a short term enthusiasm in the past and take this opportunity to build a more powerful case.
Many thanks to my colleague, Louise Bamfield, of the RSA’s education team for helping me write this blog.
[LB1]The evidence on the potential impact of the early years is strong, it’s just that the current set of policies aren’t delivering. The evidence shows that extra-curricular activities are most beneficial when focused on academic learning. I suggest taking the first part of the sentence out.
I have to admit to feeling ambivalent about the Government’s free schools policy. I am all for fresh thinking about schools but think it is the content of teaching and learning, and the relationship between schools and communities which are most important, not who owns and governs.
But, giving a talk a few days ago about the need for greater innovation in schools I stumbled on a new argument for Michael Gove’s policy. Arguably there is still remarkably little innovation in state funded schools. Secondary schools are, after all, multi million pound knowledge businesses. Yet ask most head teachers to point you in the direction of research and development in their institution and you will get a blank look. There are many reasons for this but one less often cited than the constraints of the national curriculum, OFSTED inspection and declining budgets concerns risks and ethics. Children only get one chance at schooling. But a cliché of innovation is the need to be willing to get things wrong and learn from failure.
The ethical dilemma is whether it is reasonable for a set of pupils to be the guinea pigs for risky innovation. It may just be that health care is seen as more scientific than learning, but while the idea of clinical trials (which involve a control group being given a useless placebo while the experimental group is subject to a unproven treatment) is accepted in medicine, I can’t see it going down very well if a head teacher were to describe such an experimental frame to their parents. Guy Claxton can point to hundreds of action research projects based on the use of his Building Learning Power techniques but, whatever their insight, I don’t think he would claim they have the rigour of a clinical trial.
The point about free schools is that many of them are created on an explicitly innovative basis. Therefore parents who sign up are agreeing at the outset to their children being part of an experiment. This greater level of sign-up might enable free schools to be more risk taking, with successes and failures from which we can all learn.
The other argument for free schools is more conventional but I found the context in which it was expressed to me rather poignant. It was in a meeting with senior officers of a local authority. The discussion focused on the consistent under-performance of schools and pupils in their area. Unlike some head teachers and some ministers, I found the group open, self-critical and driven utterly by achieving change rather than individual or organisational self-aggrandisement. On free schools one of the officers said: ‘the theory is that the threat or reality of free schools will shock coasting schools out of their complacency and force them to try seriously to improve. We could do wiith some of that’.
The poignancy lay not only in a local authority – so often the target of thinly veiled contempt from education ministers – speaking with a grit and determination that even Sir Michael Wilshire would find hard to match but in something else they shared with me. This was their consternation that a free school had been approved in a village which currently houses a good school providing places for all local children. ‘Why’ one of the officers plaintively asked ‘would they want to set up a free school within 100 metres knowing that this must mean we go from one thriving school to two struggling for survival? The benefits of competition can’t possibly outweigh the problems created’.
Moving to teaching and learning, this story in the Guardian also suggests potential loopholes through which creationism and other strange ideas could be given a free school foothold.
Although most free school applications are turned down, rumours continue to swirl around that senior Department for Education civil servants are deeply concerned at the regularity with which ministers over-rule official advice and approve bids which don’t fully meet published criteria. Add to this the less than satisfactory process by which a departmental contract was awarded to the New Schools Network and the strong impression is created that proper process, due diligence and the public interest is being sacrificed in the pell-mell pursuit of free school numbers.
Sooner or later these problems will gain news traction either through the exposure of embarrassing information, public outcry or the failure of free school projects. At that point a policy with real potential could be caricatured as a reckless ideological gamble. And this explains the question in my headline…
There has been a great deal of attention paid to Mr Gove’s long predicted move to scrap some BTecs and reduce the league table value of the rest to one GCSE (from as many as four). But what will be the result in terms of secondary school priorities? Looking at payment by results (PBR) systems might be a useful starting point for debate.
PBR schemes in which the payment is connected to a specific outcome will tend to see clients divided into three groups. I’m sure there are other terminologies, but these groups could be called ‘the cream’, the people who would have achieved the outcome (getting a job, staying out of prison etc) without any support, ‘the core’, who may be more likely to meet the outcome or meet it more quickly as a result of support and ‘the hard cases’, who are unlikely to achieve the outcome without a level of support which is unfeasible given the terms of the contract.
Cream skimming and parking (what is done with the hard cases) don’t happen because contract providers are bad people, they are the inevitable consequence of certain PBR systems. The main way to avoid these tactics is to move from a focus on a specific outcome to ‘direction of travel’ measures. In this approach the provider doesn’t get much money for the employment of cream clients but can get a payment for getting a hard case to, say, attend a literacy course. For several years the view among employment policy makers has been that this direction of travel is dangerous; leading to providers putting core clients on access courses of dubious value but never getting them anywhere near a job.
Schools aren’t paid by results but they are paid for places. The number of pupils they attract and the status of the school and its staff depend on key performance measures. Mr Gove and Alison Wolf have today repeated the allegation that many schools have pushed pupils into BTecs of dubious value because they are an easy way to lift a school’s GCSEs score. However, both have had to admit the evidence is circumstantial; lots more pupils do vocational qualifications like BTecs and as this isn’t in children’s best interests – according to Gove and Wolf – schools must be guilty of putting their institutional needs above the interests of pupils.
My own experience suggests that the motivation is somewhat more complex. Schools encourage less academic pupils to take courses which they may find more engaging and in which they have more chance of success and the welcome by-product of this strategy has been – until now – that it helps with the GCSE score. A more charitable interpretation of school behaviour might have been a bit better for staff room morale but it wouldn’t have made such good headlines.
But there is a perverse incentive I have frequently seen at play. It lies in the power of the five GCSEs (including Maths and English) target. This clearly encourages many schools, particularly those worried about their overall OFSTED ranking, to focus resources (for example, small group and Saturday top up classes) on those at the border line of attaining the magic five (rather than those who could get many more or have no chance of making the threshold). This incentive remains in place. Indeed, as Mr Gove presses harder on attainment of the EBac - in which there are five required subjects not just two – the key measure of school performance, the channelling of resources into the borderline pupils may be accentuated.
The latest school performance tables offer a lot more information in a more accessible form than before. I particularly welcome the information about how low, medium and high attainers have done based on their level leaving primary school. This is a direction of travel measure; the top-line school rankings have for some time combined absolute and progression targets, but the latter are made more vivid in the new performance information.
The excellent Conor Ryan has suggested that the proliferation of measures could cloud rather than enhance accountability. He may be right, but, then again, perhaps a more pluralist approach in which different schools can pursue different measures of success would be good. (Although the hard part of choosing something other than headline GCSEs is persuading parents to shift their focus from this measure.)
My point is slightly different. I agree with Mr Gove, Professor Wolf and many others that if vocational qualifications are weak and equivalences unjustified then something should be done. But just because Government removes one allegedly perverse incentive doesn’t mean everything now lines up in a natural and benign way. It would be very interesting to see from Government an analysis of how they think the different measures now applied to schools will affect how schools use resources and guide pupils.
The fear about the EBac – that it will increase the proportion of pupils who fall into the hard case/parking category – will probably have been increased by today’s announcement (as it cuts off some routes for lower attaining pupils to achieve results for themselves and their schools). Mr Gove is a powerful communicator and decisive policy maker but he doesn’t always seem very interested in the detail, but when it comes to the way national targets shape school policies that’s exactly where the devil is hiding.
PS Since first posting I have discovered that Graham Stuart, independent minded Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee made a very similar point today, but using rather more forceful language.
Predictably, the Government is having to face the question of what to place in the yawning managerial gap between thousands of Academies and the Department for Education. Recent examples of Academies getting into financial trouble, or the school in Haringey refusing to ‘Academise’, highlight the vacuum left by the effective abolition of local education authorities.
There is talk of setting sub-regional schools commissioners as the new middle tier. But as someone who was the sole critical governor of a failing school for two years, I know only too well that under-performing schools often have strong support from pupils, parents and the wider community. In the face of such an alliance a Whitehall appointed civil servant would face major problems of legitimacy.
This is why there has also been talk of elected schools commissioners. This idea has its own problems. We will see what happens in the autumn with elected police commissioners, but given that the commissioners would be mere regulators not actual policy makers there is an obvious danger of weak candidates and low turnouts. More fundamentally, while the police protect us all, isn’t it rather odd having a vote among all electors for a post which is focussed on the concerns of that minority of adults with children in school?
Which brings us back to the council: Michael Gove is apparently dead set against local government having a role in school management, believing that councils failed when they did have this power. But what can the Secretary of State do about the legitimacy deficit?
As the number of Academies that require intervention rises, as it undoubtedly will, the pressure will grow for a departmental answer to this problem. As is often the case when logic meets ideology I predict a compromise. How about school commissioners appointed by Whitehall (so Mr Gove isn’t seen to give control ‘back’ to local authorities) but answerable for ensuring effective oversight of school management both to Whitehall and to local councillors (thus providing local legitimacy).
To some – particularly those who bemoan the abolition of LEAs – such a compromise will seem messy and opaque. Others – and I think I include myself – might come see it as a reasonable way of balancing national strategy, school freedom, and local democratic accountability.
There we are, only 380 words. I have rediscovered the blogger’s greatest virtue; brevity.
Every few weeks on this page I wallow in doubt and self-pity: just enough to elicit some kind words of encouragement from a loyal old friend, a random on-line altruist or my solicitous mother adopting an internet nom de plume. It’s another one of those days
Yesterday I posted the last in a series of pieces on entitlement and obligation. I am a blogger not a scholar, an amateur commentator not a proper intellectual, but roaming across the history of the welfare state, issues in political philosophy and current policy challenges, I thought perhaps I would break new ground.
By yesterday evening the concluding post had received less feedback than any others in the series. Seen now through the piercing eyes of rejection, it seems neither compelling nor original. My intellectual journey was meant to emerge into a newly discovered clearing in a remote jungle, instead I found myself in the local park having walked in contorted circles round a small copse next to the toddlers’ paddling pool.
So – for the time being at least – no more long, involved, multiple post discussions. People are busy, if I can’t get to the point in 500 words I should think of another subject.
I have a chequered history when it comes to Academies. When I first went into Number Ten I marginalised myself by allowing it to be known that I shared some of the concerns being expressed by the Treasury and the local government department about what was then a new policy. Picking an argument with Andrew Adonis was a fast track route to internal exile.
After the 2005 election I was in part responsible for trying to persuade Labour backbenchers to vote for the Schools Bill which established Trust schools. This time I had learnt my lesson and kept it to myself that I had some sympathy for rebel Labour MPs’ concerns, particular over school admissions.
When I arrived at the RSA, by this time more open minded about Academies, I inherited the Society’s bold (in the ‘Yes, Minister’ sense) decision to set up its own. Following through on the Trustees’ leap in the dark was a tough call but it all felt worth while when the school opened, and my faith is reconfirmed every time I visit Tipton as a governor and hear the great progress being made (and we don’t even occupy the new building until September).
Meanwhile my older son’s school was being given Academy status against the wishes of an alliance of leftists and trade unions, plus a group of middle class parents not wanting to lose the special privileges that their musically talented offspring had enjoyed in the failing predecessor school. For a while I was the chosen scapegoat with it even being rumoured that, in order to legitimatise the Academy take-over, I had used my influence in Government not only to get an unannounced OFSTED inspection of the old school but to rig its dismal report.
So I felt deeply ambivalent about yesterday’s Coalition announcement. What had reconciled me to the Academy policy was, first, the way it channelled new capital expenditure into deprived areas and second, that the extra element of diversity and innovation would be good for the system as a whole. The new policy is different in both aspects. The redistribution element has gone, indeed it must be most likely that it will be more privileged schools and sets of parents who take up the new freedoms and funding streams. Second, rather than putting grit in the oyster of the local schools system the policy is now to smash the oyster entirely.
It is up to those of us interested and involved in schools to make the best of the policy framework set by our Government. This was very much the mood of the very successful launch this week of Whole Education, an RSA sponsored alliance of organisations, interests and schools supporting a more holistic and collaborative approach to learning. But I do have doubts about whether the efforts of those committed to improvement and innovation will be helped or hindered by the new policy.
It is important, first, to recognise how much freedom ‘bog standard’ local authority schools already have. In most places successful schools are left to their own devices and have been gradually getting more freedoms from the centre in areas like the curriculum. Indeed the greatest area of extra regulation recently has been in relation to ‘safeguarding’ which is a child safety, not an education, policy. But local authorities can play a vital role in addressing problems in schools that are not succeeding or in danger of getting into trouble. Getting rid of a weak but stubborn headteacher is, for example, very difficult for a group of part time volunteer governors to accomplish and most rely heavily on the local authority to guide them through the process.
Michael Gove wants an open market in schooling, but markets only succeed if businesses are regularly allowed to fail. Children only have one education so we can’t be as relaxed about failure in schools as we might be about failure in the high street. There is absolutely no question that the combination of encouraging all manner of new entrants into school governance along with residualising the local authority role will lead to many more school failures (this is not scaremongering, it is the logical consequence of the policy). It will be interesting to see how the Coalition deals with this but my hunch is that any solution will see central government effectively taking over the oversight currently vested in councils.
The RSA is seeking to develop a stronger family of schools committed to the approach of our curriculum, Opening Minds. We are pragmatic as to whether this family might one day morph into some form of shared governance. It would be an irony if there indeed were lots of RSA Opening Minds schools, as Michael Gove has made no secret of his hostility to competency-based approaches. To be fair the new Education Secretary has always recognised the tension between his own quite prescriptive views about the curriculum and his commitment to school freedom. Intellectually such openness is commendable, in practice it may prove a harder position to sustain.