A couple of months ago, when the Bury Free Press announced that I had been appointed to join a committee at Eton College, a few people got overexcited.
It was a bit like the novelist Mark Twain seeing his own obituary in a newspaper and writing in with a correction: ‘The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’
In my case, I don’t think people thought I was dead, just that I was leaving town. I duly received emails and letters, notes brimming with good wishes and cards cheering me on my way. I almost expected to turn up at school one morning and find lines of brightly-coloured bunting festooning the building.
It was a definite case of wishful thinking.
In fact, as the story made clear, the reality was less dramatic. I had been appointed to join Eton’s College’s advisory committee on research and pedagogy. It’s a group which is exploring what teachers do that helps students to learn most successfully.
We will be investigating new technologies to see which help student learning and which are mere gimmicks. And we are looking at how we can bridge the divide between state and independent schools. Hence my involvement.
I am proud to be working with some of the UK’s leading educationists, including Professor Bill Lucas, who has a particular reputation for a philosophy that emphasises the whole child and not a school life boiled down to a narrow set of hoop-jumping tests.
All of this should make us feel optimistic that great schools such as Eton see the importance of experiences and qualities that cannot be easily compartmentalized. Tests and exams are important, but they shouldn’t form a child’s whole experience of school.
Great schools have always recognised this.
The trouble is that when government gets an idea, it tends to treat it like a piece of freshly-cut steak, bludgeoning it on the kitchen table, hammering it into submission and frying it up into something bland, unrecognizable and lifeless.
So it is with current Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. She’s developed a bit of a thing about developing character and it looks as if her masterplan will be served up to the nation’s classrooms like the kind of tepid school lunch that we would only consume in desperation.
Her principles are right, of course. Who wouldn’t want schools to develop young people with character traits that set them up to take their place as honest, reliable citizens?
Who wouldn’t want students to have the resilience, the problem-solving skills, the trustworthiness and dependability that any parent would want for our own children?
The trouble is: how to achieve this on a national scale?
In the United States, character education has caught on in some charter schools so that students are now routinely assessed and ranked for how their character has developed.
This is madness.
Instead, our role in schools should be to resist a government’s over-emphasis on mechanistic testing (the new primary tests, by the way, are a disaster) and make sure that we give all children from all backgrounds a balanced, rich, challenging educational experience.
That means what children learn in the classroom should be counterbalanced by what they learn on the football pitch, in the orchestra, in the debating society and so on.
In the UK’s schools we are lucky that such extra-curricular activities have often been an essential ingredient. These are what the traditionally great public schools such as Eton have always known and their parents have paid for.
The best legacy our Education Secretary could leave on character education would be giving teachers the freedom to ensure that these enrichment activities are more widely available in every school.
After all, if they are good enough for Eton, then they should be the entitlement of every child.