Monthly Archives: November 2014

Teaching KS3 English Through the Trivium

V0007529 A woman with a bird on her head; representing dialectic. Eng

The new national curriculum for English at key stage 3 has the trivium at heart. There is an emphasis on grammar, knowledge, debate, argument, dialogue, discussion, speech, performance, talks, essays and expression. To put it simply: Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. By judicious selection of texts key stage three English can be exciting, challenging, difficult and liberating for children especially if a teacher puts conflict at the heart of his or her teaching, an idea recommended by the cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham. If you think of the course as a narrative, a story to be told, with a cast of hundreds all ready to get long, fall apart, fight, fall in love, look at each other askance from afar then it can truly excite not just your kids but also you, the teacher.

In the introduction to the national curriculum it says we should introduce pupils to the: “Best that has been thought and said,” through a study of the: “Essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens.” This gives us a wonderful way into the argument of culture that has existed throughout history. Let us ask our children: ‘Is this the best that has been thought or said or… is this the best that has been thought or said?’ It is by posing this question that we can begin to compare and contrast texts, spark debates, open controversies, develop critical thinking, creativity and also inspire children to enjoy learning interesting stuff!

What texts to choose? The curriculum states that children should: “analyse more challenging texts.” In non-fiction terms how about using this list from the Guardian as a guide to what could be ‘the best’? It gives us a starting point: the King James’ Bible and also a great dialectical counterpoint: The Origin of the Species or even a Brief History of Time. By teaching these texts alongside each other one can explore the themes as well as the language, after all the curriculum asks that: “Pupils should be taught to make critical comparisons across texts“. These texts might be thought of as too advanced by some but the principle remains, what texts can be put to work dialectically? In fiction, again, the Guardian can help us with their list of novels. Perhaps Tristram Shandy can be set against Emma, Frankenstein against Moby Dick or, perhaps the more age appropriate, The Wind in the Willows against Alice in Wonderland. By reading these books alongside each other connections and conflicts can be made and found. I would like to pitch Alice against Oedipus Rex, both of them exploring the question: ‘Who am I?’

By putting dialectical counterpoints to children to explore the stipulation that they participate in “formal debates and structured discussions,” is connected to the knowledge you are imparting, to the texts you are exploring rather than seen as a separate lesson these discussions and debates rise from the very nature of the reading. Other texts can be sought out to ensure: “A range of other narrative and non-narrative texts, including arguments, personal and formal letters.” Putting these side by side helps in the: “Summarising and organising [of] material, and supporting ideas and arguments with any necessary factual detail.” It could help with: “Knowing and understanding the differences between spoken and written language, including differences associated with formal and informal registers, and between Standard English and other varieties of English”

The study of rhetoric would help pupils “read critically through: knowing how language, including figurative language, vocabulary choice; grammar, text structure and organisational features present meaning.” And ensure that they are aware of: “writing for a wide range of purposes and audiences, including: well-structured formal expository and narrative essays stories, scripts, poetry and other imaginative writing notes and polished scripts for talks and presentations; drawing on knowledge of literary and rhetorical devices from their reading and listening to enhance the impact of their writing.” 

Rhetoric and dialectic together with grammar will help develop the richness of the spoken word, the ‘performance’ element is an essential part of the trivium. Here we can help pupils: “Speak confidently and effectively, including through: using Standard English confidently in a range of formal and informal contexts; short speeches and presentations, expressing their own ideas and keeping to the point, improvising, rehearsing and performing play scripts and poetry in order to discuss language use and meaning, using role, intonation, tone, volume, mood, silence, stillness and action to add impact.”

The best that has been thought and said, argued about, with children given other ideas as to what the best might be, then  the open nature of informed debate and the skills of great communication can make key stage three English a joy to learn. The trivium is the way forward.

On Rhetoric: A lesson Plan – Teaching the Trivium

Aristotle by Raphael

I was asked by a teacher, at a talk I was giving on oracy, if I have a lesson plan which she could use to teach Rhetoric ‘simply and in one lesson.’ I replied ‘yes!’ (Rhetoric is one of the three arts of the trivium and, as such, I believe it should be taught in schools. Here is a link to the book I wrote about it if you would like to know more!)

Here is the lesson plan:

In order to teach this lesson it is a good idea to ‘use’ the art of rhetoric in order to teach, delight and move your class, these were Cicero’s three principles of Oratory: to teach, to delight and to move. However, here, I am not trying to persuade you of the need for the teaching of rhetoric rather I am going to be quite mechanical and take you through a lesson plan:

Firstly, introduce the ‘Five Parts of Rhetoric’; these are:

1. Invention
2. Arrangement
3. Style
4. Memory
5. Delivery

Then explain what each one is, again, I want to keep it simple.


1. Invention:

This is the content of your speech and the drawing together of your ‘evidence’.
It includes: Ethos, Pathos and Logos, the three musketeers of Rhetoric. In which:

Ethos: is your credibility.
Pathos: is the shared emotion between you and the audience.
and Logos: is your use of reasoning and logic, this usefully models critical thinking.


2. Arrangement (The 6 parts of oratory) this can be a lesson in itself, I believe that if you teach this well then not only will your pupils ‘speak better’ they will also be able to write essays ‘better’. This is the ‘classic’ order for a speech, and it makes a great scaffold for an essay too:

  1. You begin with the Exordium (or ‘hook’): this should catch the audience’s attention & it should also be central to your narrative.
  2. Next comes the Prothesis: where you present a short history of the subject that you are going to be talking about
  3. This is then followed by Partitio or division: Here you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested.
  4. Then Confirmatio or proof: here it is time to state your thinking.
  5. Confutatio or refutation: you then go on to refute any opposing argument.
  6. Finally, Peroration, where you sum up the argument.


3. Memory, as a drama teacher this doesn’t worry me, I think sometimes it is good for pupils to ‘memorise’ their speeches, it isn’t always necessary but sometimes it can ‘lift’ the presentation:

Speaking from memory mustn’t be robotic, it must have Sprezzatura: in other words the speaker must allow the thoughts & ideas to inhabit them so that they seem to spring fresh from their mind!

4. Style: Should the style of the talk be low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, medium is probably the best for day to day speaking, but it would be good to introduce the ‘Grand Style’ of great oratory to see if they can lift the audience to a higher level through their eloquence.

5. Finally you need to work with your pupils on their Delivery:

This includes:

Use of space, positioning, posture, presence, communicating the feeling of honesty and truth, gesture, facial expressions, and, crucially the use of their voice: volume, pitch, tempo, pause, inflection… etc.


Here is a link to a course I am running that will feature ‘How to Teach Rhetoric

I hope some of you will find this useful. It might not work for your lesson plan pro forma, but it should serve as an introductory lesson. [I have written on this subject before if you are interested in using rhetoric as a teacher.]

Teachers Must Be Cultural Snobs: On Teaching Taste



Should teachers be arbiters of taste or is everything in the classroom lovely? Should we ask that pupils create ‘beautiful’ work or is everything they produce nice? I am often struck by how, early in their school careers, a constant stream of year sevens insist on showing me their work, not for the beauty of the what is written but the beauty of the way it is presented. I’m not even referring to the hand writing, no, what they are so insistent on showing me is the pastel coloured kitsch, butterflies and flowers, bunnies and love hearts that adorn the margins of their marginal works of sub Disney imagination.

Why do I then smile and say: ‘lovely’? Because I want an easy life.

Emily Thornberry MP had to resign after she tweeted a ‘knowing’ tweet about a house adorned with England flags, instead, should she have tweeted: ‘Oh what a lovely beautiful picture of house displaying the occupants clear sense of taste and decorum’? Well, no, as that would be too many characters… Have we reached a stage where every person’s taste is ok? Can we all adorn our houses in pebble-dash, painted in nationalist colours? Can we all pave over our gardens and park our hundreds of cars over what was once lawn? This Christmas can I put up as many Christmas decorations as the national grid can bear, flashing all night to entertain the late night epileptic on his way home from the pub?

Or should we, as teachers, take a lead and converse with our pupils and maybe even our neighbours about ‘taste’, about ‘beauty’ and about ‘culture’? Even whilst accepting that this is a minefield should we not try and get across to people that not everything is relative? Yes, things change, yes, people have different cultural values and tastes but where we come together, where we ‘commune’; part of our conversation should be to try and make sense of these things. No-one should be outside this conversation, nothing should be beyond the discussion and, though we won’t reach conclusions, the discussion of aesthetics should enrich all our lives. Or do we now live in a society where it’s ok to discuss immigration but it’s not ok to discuss taste? Teachers need to be cultural snobs, if we aren’t prepared to, who will play this vital function instead? Politicians?

The Cultural discussion must start in the margins…


The pastel coloured margins of a year seven kid who will no longer be patronised by me saying ‘that’s lovely’… No, from now on: ‘that’s disgusting and dreadfully kitsch’…


That’ll learn ’em…

Athena versus The Machine: Values-led Leadership in a Time of Change


If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” Charles Darwin: ‘Autobiography’.

Are a school’s values enfeebled by the never ending desire to change?

(This week the Guardian featured a report on what it thought the top thirty most important books for mankind were. The top two were The Bible and the Origin of the Species. Would you Adam and Eve it?)

Imagine a school…

What do you see? A building? A bunch of kids in uniform, gaily, miserably, joyfully, half heartedly, making their way to this building, on foot, on bikes, in cars, holding hands, running, dawdling, chewing, smoking, shouting, screaming, laughing, crying… And the staff, the staff, well… making their way to school, gaily, miserably, joyfully, half heartedly, on foot, on bikes, in cars, running, dawdling, chewing, smoking, shouting, screaming, laughing, crying…

And you… are you an observer here at this school, watching from afar? Are you a parent? Are you a new teacher, a head teacher, a leader, an old teacher, a retired teacher? Are you a school crossing patrol person? A bus driver? A shop keeper? Do you run the Fried Chicken takeaway around the corner? A dinner lady, a dinner gentleman, a taker of care, a van delivery driver…

Just imagine…?

And what do you think of this school? Is it a bad school, a great school, a school with redeeming features but not one you’d like your child to go to?

How do you know?

Is it changing? Why is it changing? It has to change it is such a crap school… Apparently there’s a new Head-teacher, Out with the old and in with the new…

The school has changed its name, its building, it’s now an academy, it has changed its uniform – new boots and panties, it wants to change its kids to make them more aspirational, it wants to change its kids’ parents too, make them take an interest, it has parenting classes. It has brought in a new ‘values’ statement, it is in the process of driving out old, decrepit, useless staff and bringing in new, young, dynamic staff singletons with their future ahead of them… look two of those teachers on the way to school are holding hands! Love is in the air…

New school dinners, new school dinner operatives… healthy, smiley, and a salad bar.
New targets. New initiatives. New exam results. New! And you knew it would work… You can’t stop progress, this is the 21st century! Old superstitions replaced by new certainties! Science united with business values, look at our vision statement brand spanking new targets, and new values…

New values…

‘I’m looking for one new value, but nothing comes my way…’ Sang Iggy Pop… Can one ever have ‘new values’? If you can jettison old values so easily what is to say you won’t jettison your new ones just as easily…?

As Groucho Marx nearly said These are my values and if you don’t like them, I’ve got others… Values are principles, morals, standards, we pass them on because they matter. If everything is changing including values you have no values… you have anarchy when you disrupt the culture. How does the new regime cope with this? They bring in the terror… They impose their new values by disrupting their new values…

To explore this further I want to ask a question, as a leader are you a complete Burke or an absolute Paine?


On July 10th 1789 the storming of the Bastille…

You are in England listening to the leader of the Whig Party Charles James Fox saying about the French Revolution: “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best!” Thomas Paine was encouraged by the idea of establishing a new French identity from scratch, based on better principles, and new ways of organising the nation. This was to be the enlightenment personified, the rational over the traditional. As Paine wrote in Common Sense, sometime before the French Revolution: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

We need change so let’s start again! And it is completely right headed of course. Our structures, everything which is in our dominion in a school is man-made. We made it, and like a child with a lot of wooden blocks, it can be great fun to knock them all down and start again. The progressive, change-maker, realises the arbitrary nature of our stories, things don’t have to be this way…  we need 21st century skills, we need 21st century institutions, we need kids to be trained for the future, capitalism where ‘all that is solid melts into air’ is fetishised. The utilitarian view says we need 21st Century skills for jobs that, bizarrely, don’t yet exist Who knows what jobs will be needed in the future? There might be some great global calamity and we wake up from disaster in a post technological age needing to return to the skills of our ancestors. The Scouts are no longer learning how to tie knots, I mean, what is the point?!? Certain crafts are becoming very rare, Thatchers (I use that word with great sensitivity) Stone Masons, Bookbinders, these are dying crafts no longer needed in our concrete, kindled age. How many crafts are becoming extinct? How many of us children know how to do what our parents could do? But forget the past! We need to harness the technical know how, the computer age, all has changed! Bliss that it is in this dawn to be alive!

We are all futurologists now…

Burke put it in this way: “…you began by despising everything that belonged to you…” He went on to talk about how the old ways had faults but also within their ways is the seeds of possible improvement, he talks of ancestors: “… your imaginations would have realised in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour… respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”

Tom Paine, thought we should replace the wrong of the past with right. Paine insists that the forces of tradition, the old regime, “Tremble at the approach of principles, and dread the precedent that threatens their overthrow…” And this is powerful. If the past is wrong then we need to ensure the future is right. Paine pitches thought against tradition: “I scarcely ever quote; the reason is, I always think…” oh the paradox… Here he makes an appeal to principles rather than precedent, his values are about change. He argues for a scientific, individual liberalism, against Burke’s authority laden habit and traditionalism. For Paine reason stands as a beacon against ignorance, he says about the founding of ‘America’: “…By the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all parts are brought into cordial unison. The poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged… and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.” Ha, yes, this is the problem, the continuous thrust into the golden future is uncertain, we think we have the answer, we think we know what we are changing things for but we really don’t. Nowadays the market becomes the justification for all sorts of crimes against learning perpetrated onto unfulfilled school kids. There are some progressives who just want to reject all that is old because it is old. This is not education it is euthanasia.

But what if our old school and our ancien regime is corrupt or useless, is that not a reason for tearing it all down? It might indeed be, so many wrong turns might have been made… but just think for a moment what message this sends out: when we have made a mess of things we must destroy the past. We should forget our identity and like a notorious prisoner on release we need to have a new identity forged for us. We know the past is full of mistakes and accidents but so will the future. As GK Chesterton wrote: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.” This is the balance, Education is a place where the generations, past and future meet, the teacher representing the past meets the pupil who will make the future and they meet, crucially, in the present.

In his book ‘How to Think Seriously About the Planet’ Conservative Philosopher Roger Scruton writes: “Environmentalists and conservatives are both in search of the motives that will defend a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.” Scruton sees the importance of civic associations like the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England in the way that they quietly go about environmental stewardship. Scruton sees the danger of centralized planning both from big Government but also rampant free marketeers. For it is when our institutions interact with humanity that we find out their worth. How does your school interact with the great swell of humanity that come through its doors?

If some change-maker educationalists were town planners they would be knocking down Victorian houses and concreting over vast swathes of the green and pleasant. Just as a true environmentalist would never concrete over their back garden so should a true educationalist never desecrate our cultural inheritance. Yes tend the land for new blooms, cut out some dead wood and even dig in a good dollop of manure, but overall care for the aesthetic and tranquil in the face of the dark and satanic tarmac connecting glass towers and future runways.

Some people hate ‘education’ just because it looks old fashioned, they want to throw technology at it and argue for a future where all teachers have been successfully replaced by hole in the wall machines or computer games that entertain the child by developing her marketable skills. The future deems that we should all be autonomous individuals buffeted by the global utilitarian market and our schools should train people in these skills. Not values, skills. And in the next thirty years the schools that we currently see, imagine, will be disbanded. In the age of individualism we will have no need of these institutions, we will finally be free! Free from uniformity, no more school, no more teachers, school’s out for a permanent summer fed by wikipedia.

In the golden future our values will be bought and sold on the amazon market place and delivered by drones. Placeless, faceless, looking for the values that most suit us at a certain time, we don’t want to be marked by the past, we want to escape it. Blessed are the change makers for they will free the world. But what is lost? What is lost?

As Keats wrote in an ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” For Keats: “Negative Capability, is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… the sense of Beauty… obliterates all consideration… the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Thus, the conflicting nature of things must be understood to reach the imagination, where one can create…”  ‘The concept of negative capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’ (For Keats to create poetry he believed, “One had to remain in states of conflict without irritably looking towards reason, instead of putting yourselves on one side of conflict or the other, he wanted to open up the imaginative space,and by being able to see from the other point of view, he thought things could be resolved through creative ways rather than logical ones.”)

The progressive Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger thinks we, mummified by the past, die many deaths. He thinks we must dispel the illusions and change the way we live, he sees the actual and the possible, the machine and the imagination, as allies. I see the constraints offered by the past as enabling us to both reimagine it and ourselves in the present by telling, retelling and reshaping our stories. Unger points out that progressives used to believe in blueprints, now they don’t believe in anything, but in education this is, unfortunately, not true. The blueprints of the future drive the progressive change machine. We become mummified by the future! Unger says the goal should be to overthrow the rule of the dead over the living, I believe we should converse with the dead… The change makers want us to be ruled by the unborn, I believe we should write our stories for the unborn and pass them on. Unger talks about bringing in a ‘structure revising structure,’ he thinks all we have for sure is life in the present and in seeking to change the world, we can change ourselves, by moving away from the idols (of the past and of the future?) and by moving closer together in the present, and therefore we, in Unger’s mortal phrase, die only once…

Unger calls for decentralisation, he sees wage labour as a compromised transitory form, tainted by slavery, replaced gradually by free labour – self employment and co-operation. He wants a revolution in education that privileges co-operation in teaching and learning rather than individualism and authoritarianism. He thinks teaching should be dialectical from at least two points of view, where the mind is both a machine and an anti machine, it has negative capability, and so should our institutions. This way, he believes, change can be substantial but it should be gradualist and experimental. Permanent vanguardist innovation, innovation led by and for the ubermensch excludes most people whereas Unger believes we need to disseminate the ability to change their circumstances to the very people involved. To Unger Progressives should not be about some supreme objective of equality, rather they should look at raising ordinary humanity to a higher plane of life, of capability, of experience, of scope in the here and now. And, in this he is right. We can keep our values by enacting our values, by allowing staff to be the drivers of their lives. The machine of the school needs to free the imaginations of its staff!

The controversial and eccentric scientist James Lovelock talks about the rational side of science and the intuitive side, he argues that we should encompass both the rational and the irrational and one side we can control and explain but the other side is self regulating and dynamic: it is about humanity itself. If we want a great education we must include this side, not in our calculations but in our ability to encompass its uncertainty and beauty. He calls the Earth, our great self regulating and dynamic system, Gaia.

What if education rather than being a problem to solve was thought of as something living, something, if you like, human… let us give this type of humane education a reason: the pursuit of wisdom, let us give her a name, Athena, the Goddess of wisdom. And this education, this humane education is self-regulating and dynamic, it shares this with all living things… It is consciousness…

Do we want revolution or reform? Do we want change to be gradual and human scaled or instant and imposed? The pursuit of wisdom learning to be alive, learning to be human should occur in the space where we come together in common, where we make sense in common, where we converse… Some have tried to deliver a form of freedom to pupils, student voice, child centred learning but what of freeing the teacher? What if we talked about the importance of ‘teacher voice’? The teacher allowed to co-operate and be the purveyor of gradualist and experimental change? Instead of being the problem the teacher might, indeed, be the solution. The free thinking teacher holds Athena to her heart, it is in her imagination that we find the pursuit of wisdom and by investing in our teachers they will invest their time in our pupils.

Instead of layers of middle management all chasing after data to justify their existence, instead of the poor bloodied classroom teacher having to fill in sheets of bureaucracy’s finest paper pushing, instead of money being spent on many TLRs, give staff what they really need: time. Invest in more staff rather than more middle management. Introduce a flatter management structure and trust teachers more. Instead of  the latest technology, gathering dust, have more free periods for classroom teachers. Introduce the old Japanese art of lesson study allowing for the humane organic growth of staff generated CPD, around a simple structure (like the trivium) upon which teachers can build their own classroom methodology, informed by research rather than led by it.

Burke talks about how: “The old building stands well enough, though part gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin.” The wisdom of our institutions might be in their very bricks, in the arts that are taught within and the lives of the people who teach, learn and support within them. How to make each flourish and engage with the other is the job of management, not to impose a dogma from above but to release and enable the conditions to help the flourishing and interaction of all.

As a Leader are you a complete Burke or a total Paine?

Great leadership needs roots especially if it is arguing for change. We need to take a lead from the great English Garden designer, Capability Brown. Instead of imposing wholesale change he perfected what was already there by: “Judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. For some, with an untrained eye, the difference could be imperceptible, but what a legacy he has left us!

The art of school leadership should attend to the formal potential of your landscape. Nurture your landscape, and the greatest ‘oaks’ are your staff.

Let us look at one example, using architecture as our metaphor: how to set up a new ‘innovative’ school in a new building:

Last year I had the honour of visiting the building site that was to become ‘The Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form college’ a new Maths and Science free school. What was fascinating to me is that the building was not starting from scratch, rather the construction was taking place in Norwich’s Old Fire Station, which was built in the 1930s. Architects Pick Everard and construction team Willmott Dixon were ‘changing’ the Grade II listed buildings whilst being sensitive to the tradition and ‘values’ of the old buildings, they were in the process of converting the former fire station, a civic weights & measures building and tower into a 21st century education centre with nine science laboratories and 10 classrooms.

As it says on their website: ‘The external facades remain largely unaltered and original architectural features retained.  The old fire tender hall has become a multi-purpose hall for assemblies, lectures and performances for students. The original features of the recreation room; wood panelling, clock, two billiard scoreboards, coved ceiling, window pelmets and timber flooring have been retained in the traditional library – the Franklin Room. Original staircases and balustrades have been kept, as well as fireman’s poles at each end of the building. The Principal’s office has the words “Chief Fire Officer” written above the door. Rachel de Souza, the Chief Executive who oversees the school, said: “This iconic building is a showcase sixth-form college. Our plans respect the past but look to the future with cutting-edge facilities to support our students win places at Britain’s best universities.’ There is something beautifully bonkers about a school with billiard score boards in the library and a couple of fireman’s poles, must be wonderfully quick getting to staff meetings! This can serve as our metaphor for this is ‘Athena’ in all her pomp, we don’t know why, but we feel that the ‘poetic’ is important, it raises our sights beyond the data sheets, it offers something else than the machine. The poetic butterfly, Athena, can easily be destroyed by the wheels of the machine. We must not let this happen

We need to use constraints intelligently to nurture the freedom of our staff. We need values based on tradition and entertain ideas that can challenge that tradition, not ideas distorted through the dogma of a grand future but rooted in the relationships which we have in the here and now. Here we are heirs of the past and makers of the future, but we are of the present… in the now, working collegiately in doubt, and hope and love.
[some of the above may appear slightly different to the words as spoken on the day]

Leaders: Who do you love?


[I am speaking about ‘values-led leadership’ at a conference next Thursday organised by the West Sussex Deputies Network. I will post my talk on the blog after it has been delivered.As I have been thinking about my talk I pondered the following and I thought I’d share my ponder with you in this rather short blog.]

Should someone go into teaching if they don’t like children?  Imagine at a job interview the prospective member of staff is asked: ‘do you like children?’ How many times would we expect the answer: ‘no, I hate them…’ If a teacher stated that they hated children they would probably not be offered the job.

In enlightened times we would probably say: ‘love’ rather than ‘like’. The word ἀγάπη (agápē) was one of four words the Ancient Greeks used for love, the others were: éros, philía, and storgē.  Agápē, is best summed up by Thomas Aquinas when he said: ‘To love is to will the good of another’. This ‘unconditional’ love encompasses nurturing and caring, and takes away the superficiality of ‘like’ or the implication of ‘friend’; so I’ll use the word love in this way. Forget any sinister subtext, should teachers love children? Now let’s take this one step further, imagine at a job interview for a management position a teacher is asked not only: ‘do you love children?’ But also: ‘do you love teachers?’ Imagine the look on the face of the interviewee… as she struggles with the question… what should she say? Is this a trick question? Should she say NO, this would show she can take hard decisions, that she can ‘manage’ without going native or being a soft touch? Or should she say YES and show passion for developing the staff in her care…?

Should a leader be devoted to her staff?

Leaders should you love your teachers?


Character Education is a Waste of Time

One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts

Today I had the honour to debate the following at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London: ‘Is Character Education a Waste of Time?’ This was further explained by the Chair, Jonathan Simons in this way: “The issue is… can we teach it [character] in the formal way, in the same way as we teach other subjects…?” (You can hear the debate on the audio link below)

This was my contribution:

I never thought I’d be sharing a platform with Toby Young let alone debating a motion where I am on the same side as him. Toby is an extraordinary character as is Anthony Seldon and James O’Shaughnessy, extraordinary characters all. I feel a bit of fraud, a walk on part, sharing the stage with these lead players in our national narrative.

I must admit to something, paradoxically, my day job is to teach character… I am a drama teacher by trade and some people think drama in the curriculum is a waste of time so I am very well placed to discuss this topic.

In Old English Caracter meant a symbol marked on the body or an imprint on the soul. At an ‘Option evening’ a year 9 boy came over to my table with his dad to inform me he wanted to take drama for GCSE, his Dad said: “My son wants to take drama, can’t think why, when I was at school drama was for poofs!” The imprint of that character has remained on my soul…

In theatre, it is said, that an actor knows how great a part is by how many choices the character has,… moral dilemmas if you will. Brecht called this the ‘not… but…’ I am not going to do this, but I am going to do this… For Brecht’s characters the choices were often bleak. He talked of a corridor with doors, the actor has to show the door the character chooses and also all the ones they rejected. May I venture this idea? Character is partly how we respond to choices. And our children have so many choices these day, some glorious, some bleak, they wander our corridors, and are often lost.

According to Childline more children are considering suicide than ever before, with more than 34,500 calls from under 18s talking about killing themselves. Social media, more angst about the future, more pressure to perform, might be part of the problem. The teenager who killed the well loved teacher Ann Maguire talked about how “It’s kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. It was kill her or suicide.”

We need schools and other institutions to have more time to listen and help rather than add to the burden kids already feel with more telling them how to behave, believe me, as a teacher, they get A LOT of this and we don’t need kids worrying about whether they’ve done their character education homework or not. Schools need strong pastoral systems, spotting and supporting children when they need help, this is often when they are faced with difficult choices or having made wrong choices they need love and support. A good counselling service in a school, with good connections to mental health services, is worth far more to character development than ersatz character lessons.

In schools to support character development we need to model humanity and discuss what it is to be human throughout the curriculum, in the context of of what children are learning and experiencing. This is especially possible through the arts. For Keats, the soul is the self as formed by the narrative of life. And indeed this narrative can involve many versions of who we are…‘one man in his life plays many parts’… School should help us form and understand our own and others’ ‘narratives of life.’

The reason that people are perceiving a lack of ‘something’ in education might be because the curriculum has narrowed. With the introduction of the English Bacc arts subjects have seen a decline. Now some schools are adding another hour or so of maths and the humanities are being squeezed. If we then add an hour or so a week of ‘character’ lessons something will have to give. The curriculum is becoming all STEM and no flower, how is that going to help kids with the narratives of life?!

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues says that: Character education is about the promotion of a core set of universally acknowledged cosmopolitan virtues. But are these so called virtuous ‘cosmopolitan’ characters really what we need? How about naughty ones? In the summer of 1884, the headmaster of Ascot Prep school for boys wrote on Winston Churchill’s report card: “Conduct has been exceedingly bad; he is not to be trusted to do a single thing… [he] has no ambition.” Would taught character lessons have knocked these behaviours out of him? Maybe difficult times call for difficult characters rather than those with ‘universal cosmopolitan virtues’?

Aristotle wondered whether family or state is the best institution for sponsoring education in virtue. He, mistakenly, chose the state. Mao insisted that education should instil proletarian and revolutionary virtues. Yes, you knew where this was going: the Hitler Youth indulged in three activities: physical training, training in the National Socialist world-view (brainwashing) and character building. (The Nazi Virtues for Youth included: Honesty, Order, Loyalty, Honour, Duty, Discipline, Self control, Resilience (Hardness), and Courage…)

Interestingly, in Tsarist and communist Russia, the Russian intelligentsia never trusted the state to act as arbiter of cultural norms: Vospitanie (Upbringing incl. moral education and inculcation of values, though a contradictory view is available here) was inculcated by family, or individual role models. I’m with the Russian intelligensia it is not the job of the State, or schools on behalf of the state, to tell us what characters we should aspire to be.

But even if we wanted to follow Hitler and Mao and go ahead with formal lessons in character, for the scientifically minded, the important question remains: does formal character education work?

No, there is no strong evidence that it does. EEF report nov 2013: not much “is known about how far it is possible to develop a young person’s ‘non-cognitive’ skills through intervention, or whether such changes lead to improved outcomes, especially in the long-term.’ ‘Some non-cognitive skills including ‘grit’ and self-control correlate strongly with outcomes but appear to be more akin to stable personality traits rather than to malleable skills.’

Formal character education is as relevant as Astrology.

Separate lessons in character are wrong headed because they will further narrow the already narrowed curriculum. School should help us reflect on who we are and what it is to be human, rather than give us an arbitrary list of state sponsored or company sponsored virtues which are wrong headed because though they hint at a universality they are cliches that don’t get near to the truth.

Instead let’s have a rich and varied liberal arts curriculum, lets give children access to the best that has been thought, said and done and lets get them to add to the best that’s been thought, said and done. Let’s give them real and authentic experiences and choices through which they might enrich their narratives, their characters.

The explicit teaching of character IS more than a waste of time, and by squeezing the curriculum and being explicitly taught in an unimaginative, satisfy Ofsted tick box way: it could also be a diminution of the character itself.


For interest:

Links for Character Ed:


University of Pennsylvania Resilience Programme

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing character at King’s Science Academy…

Kipp Character Report Card

‘Why the development of good character matters more than the passing of exams’ by Anthony Seldon

James O’Shaugnessy’s Address to Lord Wandsworth school

Knightly Virtues Programme (Jubilee Centre)



Here is the audio of the debate and the video is here