“I wouldn’t put a thief in my mouth to steal my brain”

Charles Portis – True Grit

Though Charles Portis was talking about alcohol (my first ever DRY January is clearly making me obsessed) this opening quote has got me thinking about how we present things in education as though they are irrefutably solid, researched and common sense but in fact under a little scrutiny we realise we should be asking more questions.

So, a new year and a new government plan.

‘Character Education’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfe-character-awards-application-window-now-open) has money behind it – over 5 million is being invested by the DFE and it is looking at celebrating and supporting schools that develop and build character, resilience and grit in their pupils. Furthermore, the character and resilience they need to succeed in modern Britain. The government will help guide us with the tools and support to develop well rounded pupils ready to go onto an apprenticeship, university or the world of work. It is open to all sectors of education – I am immediately interested in seeing the outcomes of sign up and success (Will there be a Private over State bias?).

Anyway, nothing wrong with the principles of this I hear you cry! And I agree. I have always put skills and attitudes up there with academic standards in all the schools for which I have been a head teacher. I think that this is a vital role we have to play in education and never more so as our world takes on the illusion of becoming smaller as ‘global’ changes and the drivers behind them become organically linked through social and business interactions.

But as I read more I see that the government have given us an ideal approach to do this – the Military Ethos Projects. The papers talk about Service Values:




That these areas are done best via the military and will strengthen a young persons ‘achievements’ at school both personal and academic. Massive claims I feel – like so many things I think about this has left me with more questions than answers. (In fact 94% of teachers involved saw no academic improvement). The main one is – so where is the evidence and research that says a Military Ethos will impact upon the character of young minds? Especially when everything I seem to read (Todays Times article 10th Jan 2015 – Sober and Studious: how teenagers have changed, “Today’s teenagers are more studious, sober and ambitious than those of a decade ago, according to government research”) and experience tells me that our current system is producing our best students.

There was a trail project and according to it 52,000 young people were involved. A number of providers were involved from the 21 School to something/one named Commander Joe? 53% of the pupils identified improvements in their ‘behaviour’. The projects seemed well planned looking at:

Resilience (Confidence and Self-esteem)

Respect (Self and others)

Social and interpersonal skills

Health (Mental and Physical wellbeing)

So, interestingly, we begin with character and we immediately focus upon behaviour. We can only develop character if we have a certain type of discipline? I can understand how important this is and the impact our behaviour has. But, is the military approach the ‘best’ approach? It seems it is seen as the best way from this projects roots. This gives me some cause for concerns because I believe that character is more than making us work to strict behaviour models. In particular I found the A,B,C, D model fascinating:

A – Alturism – including helping others through volunteering, understanding how their behaviours affect others, helping out at home and in the classroom.

B – Bounce back – learning from your mistakes, developing grit and determination, overcoming failure and trying again.

C – Comfort zone busting – trying out new activities in unfamiliar environments, collaborating with pupils from other schools, working with new people.

D – Destination – establishing high aspirations and doing well at school, setting goals and understanding how to get there, developing qualifications with employers, achievening qualifications and skills beyond the classroom.

Why would a military model be better at this than, say, the artists, self-employed business person, class teachers, NHS or anyone else who has to ‘get up’ and ‘get on’ in life? Though it is possibly unwise to be critical of the armed forces (just look at the way they are used politically on Facebook etc) I do have to question what purpose it has in the education of children in schools. It is a professional organisation who at its heart may believe it is a force for freedom but the reality is far more clouded. Human rights campaigners would list ‘worldwide’ many acts and approaches employed by the military that would bring in to question their credentials regarding being ‘best’ placed to lead a generation in character building. Never have we needed to be able to question and express our feelings more than in recent times. Charlie Hebdo being the perfect recent example. Character is a complex thing and I worry that by simplifying it, conforming it to a set of criteria (A checklist) we are not necessarily developing it. We can do the hard stuff regarding strict codes of behaviour in schools (We clearly have important people in the government who believe it is the right way forward to instill character in schools) but will we discuss the roots of terrorism in our curriculum and how this impacts upon rational behaviour? Will will engage with the difficult subjects that need education to tackle our attitudes and behaviours towards them?

So, what kind of military are we being presented with here?

Resilience, Respect and Leadership – the officer/private school model? Twenty poor souls carrying logs through knee deep peat bogs whilst ‘encouraged’ by a fob haired chap with a BBC accent? And all happening at a time when the Army is being scaled back and part time reservists are being increased… “Oh, you bloody cynic Old Primary Head!” But as anyone who reads CHAVS by Owen Jones will know you have to question the motives and understanding of politicians. I have little faith that this program was driven by people in education and therefore I have very little faith it is nothing more than a think-tank idea and experiment. An alternative. That is fine if that is how it is presented. But it is not presented that way. It has shine and clout.

“So, what is your answer? Come on Old Man!”

I feel I need to use a dirty four letter word now. This word is only used in the private corners of our world all too often. I am unsure that character building is about discipline. I feel that we need to develop character by developing our understanding of LOVE. We need to instill in our schools the development of passion for our world and an unrelenting belief that we are capable of great things. I know:



Imagine what the Dali Lama’s three character building tips might be. Or Mandela’s? I am just asking. Why do we look to the military to answer the development of character?

But the question is this:

How do we develop global citizens with the character to make our world the one we want it to be?

If this is a fair, sustainable and just place where humanity is progressing rather than regressing. What should schooling do?

I know I give a wishy washy argument here but it is the very beginning of a talk I am developing and I have much reading and rethinking to do. I openly welcome your thoughts on this. Right now I am just saying this…

I believe that character is a wonderful thing. I believe that schools have done a brilliant job at developing character (Though maybe by default at times). I don’t believe that an Army Ethos is qualified to offer us the answers we need in our future. I think a military approach which has followed us throughout our history needs a radical rethink – even at a time when it has a much softer and rose-tinted press campaign behind it.  I think that Love, Compassion and Understanding need a bigger focus in the development of character. I also believe I am a dreamer… I mean I have always said that music, film and art taught me everything I needed to know about life. I saw this cartoon the other day…