Participatory Budgeting in Schools#8: Miss Jones gets education into character at CurriculumEd2019.

Know your Value: An introduction to what I found to be the most impactful session of Saturday’s wonderful event. And given that the list of speakers included Sean Harford, Christine Counsell and Clare Sealy, that does say something for Miss Hollie Jones, Lead for SMSC and Character Education at Joseph Leckie Academy.

Building restraint – 6m34s into the Marshmallow Test

Preamble: Put your head where your heart is

My only regret at CurriculumEd2019 was that I did not follow my heart in selecting speakers. You could say that my sense of responsibility towards my partner Shared Future for ensuring that our joint initiative to get Participatory Budgeting into schools meets the nitty-gritty demands of the new framework got the better of me.

And it wasn’t that my responsibly selected speakers @Tom_Middlehurst and @JudeHunton did not 100% deliver on their promises – each session did exactly what it said on the tin. It’s just that, deep down, I yearned to soar out of the box with Martin Robinson, Fabian de Fabiani and Fr. Plant. If there is a relevant point to this preliminary rumination, it is perhaps that Character Education is about more than inculcating specific traits — such as responsibility — as it is about embedding said traits into a guiding narrative, a “compass of self,” a whole human.

That said, here follows what for me was the most impactful session of Saturday’s wonderful event. It’s one thing to hear rocket scientists describe the engineering solutions to conquering space. Its quite another to hear an astronaut describing her first take-off. Enter Hollie Jones.

Why there is no excuse for ignoring Character Education

Hollie began by debunking the four ill-considered homilies that usually stop otherwise intelligent school leaders from investing in Character Education (And, be honest, don’t we all recognise them to a degree?).

  1. Character Education takes time away from “real subjects”
  2. Character Education cannot be measured and is therefore irrelevant
  3. Character Education is a nice bonus, we will do it if we have time
  4. It is not our job, it should be taught at home

The first three arguments are invalid for a number of reasons, and from September, also untrue: The new inspection framework will take into account how schools are “developing pupils’ character, the set of positive personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct, so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others.”

This is a major turning point for character education in England; all of England’s 22,000 schools will be asked to explicitly demonstrate how they develop the character of their pupils.

– Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Implementing the New Ofsted Framework: Character Education Policy and Practice, 2019.

(As for item four, as things stands at the moment, do schools have a choice? Noble character is not high on the list of priorities in most contemporary households.*)

Why old habits die hard

In spite of Ofsted’s new focus, organisational dispositions are notoriously difficult to change. The 2019 framework’s approach to measurement is especially challenging, as there are many ways for schools to potentially tick-box their way out of this particular new responsibility: “We did a dedicated character building day three months ago and we start each morning by reciting our character values – what more do you want?”

The experts can't define it either.

Another obstacle is a very honest one: Let us say that your school has identified a series of “target traits” to inculcate from September 2019 when the new framework takes effect, and appointed you to make it happen.

If you are like most teachers who have been landed with such responsibility (on top of everything else) likely you will start typing some key terms into Google (following a bit of procrastination) – and be no closer to a practical solution after hours of reading.

Adversely, if you’re one of the visionary types, you will very quickly run into the problem of resources and collegial resistance as you outline to horrified staff how you are going to turn the core subjects into Dionysian character-development studios (Sadly, not all schools can accommodate a Fabian de Fabiani, nor can every Director of Character Education and Wellbeing pull off character curriculum via the Hero’s Journey).

So, how do you do Character Education that will make students “reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others” in harmony with the new framework?

Well, look no further. Hollie Jones will show and tell.

Bringing character back into education

First, picture in your mind’s eye one of those classes where you struggle to wring one word out of 32 pupils per hour. Imagine trying to get traction for any exciting initiative (such as a student TED-Ed club) to discover that the small handful of kids who express any interest whatsoever are only on-board in the hope of getting time out from other subjects.

No wait, you’re not imagining! This is what Hollie and many, if not most, secondary teachers face across the country. Total and utter paralysis. Disengaged and disaffected students waiting for simple instructions and then executing them grudgingly and poorly. No initiative. No drive. No curiosity. No willpower. Imagine being Rick Grimes in a Zombie movie titled “The Sitting Dead.”

Now, clear your head, and instead imagine all of those very same students stepping up, driven by righteous fury that all is not well in their local community. Imagine them generating £400 with only £100 worth of seed funding from the school budget. Imagine them collaboratively planning, setting up and running a succesful charity disco with minimal teacher guidance. Imagine them buying, packing and personally distributing food packages to poor residents in Walsall over Christmas. And imagine they did the vast majority of this outside school hours.

Well, you can stop imagining, because this actually happened at Joseph Leckie Academy under the purview of Hollie Jones. How? She simply informed her students that for some of their peers, school lunch was their only meal and showed them this:

That was sufficient to launch this avalanche of activity.

“Is our town a miserable place where people go to bed hungry? Hell, no!” **

Without realising it, Hollie has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt my previous point that social action is the single most powerful driver for student engagement, bar none. But Hollie’s story also highlighted to me that I have been overly focused on core subjects and enterprise education – In spite of having a delegate from University of Birmingham School point it out on 20 May, I have only now fathomed to which degree Participatory Budgeting will not only help schools tick the tricky box of Character Education, but will demonstrably inculcate those human skills within the context of the curriculum.

Thank you to Hollie Jones and her elite squad of social justice guerillas.

All that remains is that we work together to slowly and methodically build a flexible, replicable programme. Any school in and around Birmingham is welcome to join the endeavour.

Next post will present the example of a Participatory Budgeting “event” I gave Hollie and her colleagues after the session that interlaces curriculum content, enterprise skills, university and business engagement with dignity and agency. It will also recap our discussion about assessment, equal participation, “self-organising” Project-Based Learning vs surgical Cooperative Learning, transfer of grit, pecking order in girl groups, direct application to subjects and some other concerns that will need to be addressed if we want to harness the energy of social action in schools. Get notifications on Twitter).


Previously on Participatory Budgeting is the business end of

*) The aspect of parental engagement is one we are hoping to address through Participatory Budgeting in schools.

**) This quote is paraphrased by the author and inserted for literary effect only. No student at Joseph Leckie Academy is known to have used this kind of language.

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