Talk-ED: Resilience, character and social mobility

 

If you heard about an education conference called “The Character and Resilience Summit” would you be inclined to rush to register? 

The All-Party Parliamentary Group recently completed a report which it called “7 Truths about social mobility.” In a country so irretrievably characterised by social class and the divisions which it imposes on pretty well every aspect of social, educational, and political life, this is a bold move – not simply to tackle the issue but to have confidence that the process had discovered the “truths” of the matter.

I do ask the audience not to laugh or even to smile at the simplicity of their findings. One writer in The Daily Telegraph awarded them The Bleeding Obvious Award:

  •   what happens between the age of 0-3 is the opportunity for greatest leverage for social mobility;
  •   it is possible through education to break the cycle of disadvantage that social class creates;
  •   the most important controllable factor is the quality of teaching;
  •   but it is also about what happens after the school bell (i.e. in the home);
  •   university is the top determinant of later opportunities therefore education achievement pre-18 is the key.

Now all of these are either well-known or platitudinous – the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility will not be known for having pushed back the frontiers of knowledge.

But there are two which do not state the obvious and it is these two which have captured the attention of the wider audience:

  •   later pathways to mobility are possible given the will and support;
  •   personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain.

Quite right they have claimed and immediately have called for schools to start teaching “resilience” and “character”. What do they mean? The old British stiff upper lip? The bash them on the bums? Cold showers?

I have seen hundreds of students who will never know the advantages gained by others through social status and class who have demonstrated tons of resilience and have character in abundance that shows high moral quality and strength. It is largely a conclusion that can only, underneath the platitudinous gabble that they bring to the discussion, really believe that they have access to the perks of social class because they are better people. People with resilience and character.

Producing a curriculum for character will be a challenge. But not so much for resilience. Schools already offer opportunities for developing both character and resilience through leadership opportunities, sports  / music / cultural activities, school camps, education outside the classroom and so on.

It is not resilience and character that will provide opportunities for social mobility for those who come from the lower status strata in our communities. No, it is the early development of those skills and attributes that happen significantly in the first three years of life – language (especially), peer and social skills, understanding of symbols and numbers, vision and hearing and emotional control. This has been “discovered” by many in this country and nicely brought together by Dr Peter Gluckman in his recent report. But is it really capturing both our attention and the resources?

The 7 Truths Gang give themselves away when late in their report, they see as a priority the need for us to discover “How to replicate Public (i.e. private) School confidence” (note the capitals for Public School!)

This has led to the summit on resilience and character being talked to by teachers from Eton.  There is no doubt that the teaching at Eton is of a very high standard, I have visited the school and sat in many English classes where the teaching in the senior classes was certainly well into what one could expect at a university here.

But it isn’t your normal group of students sitting in the room. They have all the attributes that you would expect of the social class they come from not only high competence in all the skill areas backed by a fierce commitment to study but also an unshakeable belief in their right to the privileges they enjoy and a total confidence that they will go on to be important people, and rich people. Yes, whatever you mean by it they have a resilience and the character they have is unmistakeable.

If those who are disadvantaged in our current system cannot quite see themselves acquiring a country seat or two, finding parents who work in the colonies or in the government or in the city, and mixing with quite a different class they had better settle for something much more sensible. They will have to settle for learning language(s) well, getting basic skills in place and taking advantage of each and every opportunity that comes their way for expanding their experience and the set of leadership qualities that they have. Teachers will have to ensure that they are “high quality” in their trade.

Most importantly, we need to do everything that we can to see that parents are supported to provide that critical environment for the development of those young brains. If suggestion and self-help don’t work then intervention might be the only way. 

 

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