…if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle.
So says smug posh-boy Dexter Mayhew to mousy Emma Morley in David Nicholls’ One Day. Emma is the talent-rich Northerner with self-esteem issues and Dexter is the Southerner with swagger. Emma is state educated and Dexter is a product of the hallowed halls of one of England’s foremost centres of learning. He is part of the ‘7 percent club’ and we are led to believe that at least part of his innate confidence and bravado come from his formative education. He has presumably developed such an advanced sense of social confidence through multiple visits to Hunt Balls, sailing at Salcombe and a few cans of warm Stella at Hunstanton tennis week.
I thought of this particular quote when reading one of the many blogs on character, grit and resilience that have sprung up like Japanese knotweed in recent months, threatening to strangle dialogue on virtually any other topic. To read many of these blogs is to suggest that such ideas are new and that Schools have been myopic in ignoring such an obvious facet of each child’s education.
Do I believe that my School develops character and encourages grit and resilience? Yes, certainly, but they are not taught explicitly and neither are the words mentioned (at least in any ‘official’ capacity). These are basic human qualities that are desirable, but they cannot be taught, in much the same way that kindness and happiness cannot be taught – especially as one person’s version of what it means to be happy may well bear little resemblance to that of another. ‘Teaching explicitly’ and ‘developing through the educative process’ are two very different things. The latter is not quite subliminal, but it is something that goes on throughout the pupils’ time at School, and as such, becomes embedded over a number of years.
For ‘character’ to be developed, it is important to give first pupils the opportunity to display their character. We place significant emphasis on competitive team sport; on playing a musical instrument in various ensembles; on treading the boards in both School and House plays; on attendance at various clubs and societies; on taking responsibility in a School and House context; on undertaking academic challenges that last months rather than days, giving one the sense of real expertise and achievement over a significant period of time; on serving the local community in a genuine and meaningful way; on learning the need to rely on others and have them rely on you through the CCF; on a significant engagement with charitable pursuits, both at home and abroad.
To quote just one example, I have coached my current football team for just two sessions and one fixture, but it has already given me insight into aspects of character of many of the individuals. I can see whose head goes down quickly when we concede, who looks to blame others when things are not going well, who is the first person to congratulate a team-mate for doing something good, who values their own milestones over that of the team, who is scared of the physical side of things but puts their feet in where it hurts anyway and who wants to win more than anything for the duration of the game but recognises that is is nothing more than that: a game. Tiny things – the boy who asks if he can help at the end of a session, the boy who thanks you at the end of every game, the boy who shakes the hand of the opposition coach win or lose – these must always be noted and fed back (usually in a subtle manner) if the team ethos is to develop.
It is important as educators that every one of the above behaviours that is commendable is celebrated and every one of the above that is undesirable is challenged. We must adopt a rigorous commitment to setting the highest standards of behaviour and we should never deviate from these standards. All teachers need to buy in to this approach across the entire range of School-based activities. In general, pupils like to know what is expected of them. They value high standards that are applied consistently. Trying to teach ‘grit’ is impossible; presenting pupils with ample opportunity to display this behaviour, identifying and praising such behaviour where it is apparent and ensuring that the educative body is committed to developing such behaviour through a wide range of activities should be possible in every School.
I conversed on Twitter recently with an academic at the university of York who was bemoaning the imbalance of resourcing in the independent and state sectors. He had a point, but character, grit and resilience cost, just like good manners, nothing.