The Formation of Character
Blog - The Formation of Character
Monday 18 November 2019
“REMONSTRANCE, calm, distinct, and persevering, in public and in private, direct and indirect, by word, look, and demeanour, is the unequivocal duty of every Christian”
On 14th July 1833 John Keble thus addressed the congregation of St Mary the Great, Oxford with his famous sermon lamenting what he described as the “National Apostasy”, what he perceived as the British state abandoning its commitment to being a Christian nation. With his sermon he sought to hold both Church and state to account for this state of affairs. It has come to be described as the Assize Sermon and was eventually highly influential in re-energising the Church of England through what came to be known as the Oxford Movement.
Keble’s vision of a Christian nation, albeit one already imperilled, probably sounds pretty alien to many ears in contemporary multicultural, multi-faith Britain. The vestiges of a Christian nation remain though, with Lords Spiritual holding seats in our legislature and our Head of State, the Queen, being at the same time the Supreme Governor of the established church. Perhaps some of the most widespread and obvious expressions of a national church which remain are the large number of schools designated as Church of England schools, or which, like Bennett, belong to academy trusts owned by the Church of England through their ‘members’.
Britain has changed hugely since Keble wrote, but his words about remonstrance remain, I believe, potentially very valuable. Remonstrance, the earnest or perhaps forceful presentation of reasons, is for me how you shape minds, by offering alternative possibilities.
How might teachers and school leaders today enact the remonstrance that Keble sees as the prime Christian duty?
Early this November, the Department for Education published some new guidance in the form of a character education framework. The Tenax Trust CEO, Ian Bauckham, chaired the advisory group on character whose recommendations are the basis for this guidance. I am delighted that Bennett is included amongst the case studies of schools used to illustrate the benchmarks proposed by the document, referring to our co-curriculum provision. However, I am also rather envious of the two schools used to illustrate the benchmark ‘What kind of School are we?’ This benchmark is all about the kind of education that schools aspire to provide and the identity we form in our young people.
I’m envious because, for me, this benchmark goes to the heart of what I believe character education should be about, Keble’s remonstrance, teaching children that there is a right way of living our lives.
At Bennett we have been thinking about the purpose of the education that we offer a great deal. One of the things that is at the heart of what we aim to offer is the formation of character in young people and in particular that we enable children to use their intellect and reason to live lives which are lived for good and consequently deeply fulfilled. These ideas about character formation come to us from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Our extensive co-curriculum, with its outstanding Duke of Edinburgh Award programme certainly contributes to this by habituating service and commitment, but in fact the heavy lifting is done elsewhere, in the curriculum itself and in day to day life at school.
Both the Church and Aristotle have taught us that commitment to living your life in a way which is governed by a reasoned commitment to virtues such as justice, courage, faith, hope and charity brings the possibility of fulfilment. At Bennett, children learn from every teacher that it is commitment to their studies and resilience in their thinking which leads to success, not some fixed quantum of intelligence; thus, for example, do our students learn about fortitude and it becomes their habit through rigorous practice.
And just in case the power of the hidden curriculum of expectation and relationships is not enough to teach students about the virtues of justice, prudence, courage, temperance, faith, hope and charity, our students in year 11 are explicitly taught an RE course which focuses upon developing their knowledge of these and seeks to habituate their practice.
So if the Department for Education guidance for character education ever comes to be re-published, I hope that Bennett will have become the benchmark for “what kind of school are we?” Certainly, feedback that we get about our students and their achievements supports the notion that they are a remonstrance to our world of self-indulgence, intemperance and hyper-individualisation. On the 1 November this year I received an email from a senior manager at Virgin Media who wrote: “I just wanted to say that given the number of children on board and the obvious excitement, they were a credit to the school. The group seated near me clearly take behaviour on public transport seriously and were concerned with hushing each other and about the group’s potential disruption to passengers on the train. They need not have worried, the carriage was inevitably noisy but very respectful and I hope that this reassurance will be passed onto the students.”
To ‘remonstrate’ these days connotes a rather negative, angry telling off. This isn’t what I mean when I say that I hope that Bennett students become a remonstrance to our world. Instead my ambition for them is that they all become a benchmark of hope.