Last January I noted Secretary of State Nicky Morgan’s ambition, surfing the wave of educational fashion, to make Britain ‘a global leader in teaching character … ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit.’ To that end, DfE invited bids for projects showing how her version of ‘character’ might be built, and on 16 March there was a grand ceremony at which the 2015 Character Awards of £15,000 each were presented to the 27 winners, with an additional £20,000 prize for the lucky best of the best.
In my blog of 30 January I traced the American roots of the current trade in grit – serious thinking about what it takes to cope with today’s world all but swamped by corporatism, psychobabble and John Wayne – and its curious melding with ‘play up, play up and play the game’, that very British but decidedly passé transmogrification of life’s experiences and vicissitudes into a public school playing field peopled by muscular males. I also reported Jeffrey Snyder’s objection to ‘grit and resilience’ as currently formulated on the grounds that it is ‘untethered from morals, values and ethics’, and John White’s concern, rather underlined by the DfE awards themselves, that instead it is ‘tied to an ideology of winners and losers.’
Having now seen the list of awards I must eat some though not all of my words, for among the winners are some undoubtedly impressive and indeed moving initiatives, including several schools striving to raise disadvantaged children’s self-esteem, and these are reassuringly remote from the headline-grabbing crudity of the Nicky Morgan paradigm.
Yet even before the results were announced there were rumblings about the competition procedure, which required interested schools to nominate themselves and then justify their claims to a prize by briefly answering six questions. One of these asked for evidence of the impact of their character-forming strategies on their students, but critics of the scheme claimed that such evidence counted for less than the eloquence of schools’ answers, that these were not independently checked for accuracy, and that the provision of genuinely verifiable evidence was optional.
We have not been told how many of England’s schools entered this somewhat bizarre competition, but we can safely assume that the overwhelming majority did not. Most, quite simply, will have been too busy to do so. Some will have been unwilling to have their names linked to what looked suspiciously like a pre-election political stunt. Others will have been justly offended by the implication that schools don’t attend to their students’ personal and interpersonal development unless DfE instructs them to, and that even then they require a £15,000 incentive. Others again, as my January blog suggested, will have objected to being told to replace their carefully conceived and sensitively nurtured efforts in this direction by a recipe from which ethics, communality, plurality, social responsibility and global understanding were apparently to be excluded. And, for that matter, the CPR aims of respect, reciprocity, interdependence, sustainability, culture and community?
The ingredients, in fact, of citizenship. But then, Ms Morgan’s government has made citizenship optional at Key Stages 1 and 2.
Which is not to say, as I’ve stressed above, that the winners did not deserve to be recognised for the work they do. But equally deserving of recognition, surely, are the thousands of schools whose teachers value and nurture ‘character’ with no less commitment and success, but perhaps more consistently manifest that character by not competing with others to advertise the fact.
All of which raises a troubling question about the government’s cynical view of professional motivation. Not only are there many more awards for teaching now than there were, say, thirty years ago – in itself no bad thing in a country that has tended to take this most essential of professions for granted – but the award industry has become increasingly and dangerously politicised, with what Warwick Mansell has calculated as a disproportionate showering of gongs on academy heads at the tendency’s apex.
Fortunately, most teachers are motivated by something more profound and less self-serving than the hope or expectation of such baubles. Indeed, in the matter of leading our children by example, we might argue that it’s the unsung thousands of teachers who disdain ministerial threats and bribes who most truly manifest grit and resilience.
Nicky Morgan modestly lauded her character-building wheeze as ‘a landmark step for our education system.’ If we add together all the landmark steps announced by recent education ministers we’ll have a veritable staircase. Does it, I wonder, lead up or down?