Tristram Hunt is in no man’s land

With his recent speech urging schools to teach character and creativity, Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has stirred up the already lively battle between so-called traditional and progressive educators.

It could be seen as an attempt at reconciliation or to find some common ground. After all, in the last few weeks those traditionalists who have argued that state schools should do more to mimic private schools must acknowledge the extent to which Eton, Harrow and the rest define themselves by both what their pupils know and also by the type of character that emerges from the private school experience. Similarly, so-called progressives need little persuasion that a well-rounded education should develop character and creativity, alongside academic achievement.

But the problem is that the two camps are deep in their trenches, well dug-in, ready for many months of attritional mud-slinging. The no man’s land which Hunt has wandered across doesn’t allow much for nuance. You either believe in academic rigour and direct instruction or you’re a lilly-livered envelope-shuffling, group-work loving, post-it note wielding softie. You either want your children to inhabit the 21st century or you are a hard-faced Gradgrind patrolling the desks, rattling knuckles and twisting ears. One or the other. Choose your sides now.

The need to stick valiantly to your guns no matter what is well-demonstrated by Toby Young’s blog on the issue, where such is his desire to defend the traditional view he ends up disagreeing with himself. Character or ‘soft-skills’ as he terms them, is something he has ’emphasised’ in the past and he insists children at his school do extra curricular activities to develop such traits. Surely, he should be open to Hunt’s arguments then?

He goes on to cite ED Hirsch, who must know a thing or two because he’s American and doesn’t use his name. Young describes Hirsch as being ‘withering’ on the subject of teaching character. Here’s his ‘withering’ attack, quoted directly:

“Hirsch acknowledges that there’s a link between traits like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” and success, defined in terms of academic achievement, employability, earning capacity and mental and physical health.”

Oh, hold on. That sounds quite positive. Not withering at all. You’ll be forgiven if you are confused at this point. But remember that, as Young believes himself to be a defender of tradition, he simply cannot allow himself to side with anyone who has a whiff of the modern about them.

The last roll of the dice, as is often the case for the two entrenched sides, is to caricature and misrepresent the others’ position. Propagaganda, if you like. What is dangerous about advocates of character education, Young states, is that they claim teaching character is more important than book learning. You can almost feel the sharp intake of breath from the Home Counties. The sods, they don’t care about books. School’s just one long team-building away day, making bivouacs out of Bleak House, rafts out of Romeo and Juliet.

But, oh, hold on. Again. Hunt is not saying teaching character is more important than ‘book learning’. Nor is he arguing character should be taught as a separate programme or as an ‘add-on’. Far from it.

Where Young leads us to the ‘let’s all pack up and go home’ view that character is hard-wired in our genes, Hunt’s argument is that our dispositions are more adaptable and can be shaped by events and experience.

This central point here is one that should, for once, unite the old school and the new school. Through it’s culture and it’s teaching, a school should develop both the academic capacities and the character of it’s students. Is that really so hard to agree on?

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Filed under Policy, Politics - general, Schools

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