GCSEs *and* Confidence; (Re-)considering our yardstick of success

Working on the HeppSy+ programme has made me ponder connections between a happy life and the ‘confidence and resilience’ strand also found in the new Character Education framework.

[6 minute read]

The importance of building confidence and resilience in young adults cannot be overestimated. In a recent mental health survey, the largest ever conducted on UK university students, one third reported having a “serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem for which they felt they needed professional help.” Interestingly, more than 80% of those students reported that their symptoms began in high school.

‘Confidence and resilience’ is actually one of the six ‘character benchmarks’ in the DfE’s 2019 Character Education framework guidance. Inexplicably, however, building students’ courage, honesty and integrity (found on page 7) remains non-statutory, which leaves Character Education as one of those irritating, hovering mosquitoes buzzing around far down on the list of Ofsted inspection survival equipment. Annoying, but not really dangerous. Until you contract malaria, that is. And contracted malaria we have. A malaria not of the body, but of mind or soul or spirit – pick your descriptor.

Because, what has been the actual outcome of us perceiving poor GCSEs in maths and English as more detrimental to young adults than them sitting isolated, drunk, drugged and slicing up their inner thigh with a razor blade? The outcome is exactly that: Young adults who are isolated, drunk, drugged and slicing up their inner thigh with a razor blade. This graphic description is intended to remind myself and the reader of the realities behind the statistics: This is the actual lived experience of thousands and thousands of children and young adults.

And HE access is no safe haven, as the survey shows. It would be interesting to investigate the correlation between mental health issues and the forgotten third who left secondary education with less than a grade 4 relative to those who did pass. Suffice to say that if half of the students in universities report thoughts of self-harm, then we might need to re-consider the doctrine that successfully passing your GCSEs should be the sole purpose of schooling.

Half of the students (50.3%) who took part reported thoughts of self-harm – almost twice as high as reported rates in 2017 – while just under one in 10 (9.4%) thought of self-harm often or always.

Levels of distress and illness among students in UK ‘alarmingly high’.

The mental health issues that challenge young people’s successful engagement with higher education is a context of which Catherine and I have been very mindful when developing the new HeppSY Confidence & Cooperation programme. This programme very intentionally brings to life the theory of Possible Selves through the practice of Cooperative Learning which benefit all pupils, rather than the small handful of already competent individuals, who, ironically, don’t necessarily gain from the current competitive environment as much as common wisdom would suggest.

The reason for this is that competitive learning environments base students’ self-esteem on a contingent view of their competence: “If I win, then I have worth as a person, but if I lose, then I have no worth.” This message does not help young people build confidence and resilience for the simple reason that some measure of failure is an intrinsic part of human existence. When the small subset of routine winners are finally struck by inevitable failure, they respond like the routine losers who tend to be self-disparaging, apprehensive about evaluation, and are apt to withdraw psychologically and physically resulting in a vicious cycle of defensive avoidance, evaluation apprehension, and distrust of peers. In direct opposition to this, the positive interdependence in Cooperative Learning induce students to promote each other’s success, form multidimensional and realistic impressions of each other’s competencies, and give accurate feedback. Such interaction tends to promote a basic acceptance of oneself as a competent person (See Johnson & Johnson, An overview of Cooperative Learning).

These are some of the reasons that Catherine Brentnall and I hope Confidence & Cooperation will get attention beyond the Widening Participation audience it’s designed for. To help overstretched teachers embrace the programme, its 20 odd self-contained slide decks can be delivered individually in bursts of as little as 15 to 30 minutes or strung together to form longer sessions as needed. For example, this would be highly useful for designing an innovative alternative to the traditional enterprise day, which has the potential to undermine the very students it should be helping.

[On] GCSE results day we celebrate the achievements of our most able students … of triumph over adversity. But there’s another story … Every results day, in the margins, are the many, many students who don’t do so well…

– Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Foreword to The Forgotten Third – Final report of the Commission of Enquiry, 2019.

The very idea of possible selves presented to, and negotiated with, peers turns Character Education and PSHE into hands-on practice, and the very act of negotiating, vetting, comparing and refining one’s understanding facilitates a range of skills crucial to success in higher education, work and life in general. Further to this, Gatsby Benchmarks 2, 3, 4 and 7 are also addressed. Specific materials are included in Confidence & Cooperation to facilitate Gatsby benchmarks 2) “Learning from career and labour market information” and 4) “Linking curriculum learning to careers.” Regarding benchmark 7), there’s a whole subset of slides to prepare and support intelligent engagement with representatives from higher education (or from the world of work, with a bit of easy tweaking).

The real hope is of course that the astute teacher will be able to transfer these activities into maths and English.

As for ”Addressing the needs of each pupil,” benchmark 3 is supported by the individual accountability and equal participation that distinguishes Cooperative Learning from the destructive time waste known as “group work.”  In Cooperative Learning, every single person matters. Every single person brings value to the table. Every single person is responsible for speaking up. Again, it is reasonably straightforward to tie such activities in with the fundamental British values of democracy and mutual respect and tolerance – which, unlike character education, are not optional extras:

“These activities we are doing is what responsibility beyond yourself looks and feels like. It’s your future workplace. It’s the family you’ll eventually establish. And it’s the society you will be living in. You need to take your place. You need to pull your own weight. You need to speak up when something needs to be said. You need to keep abreast of politics and be able to vote responsibly. So, Callum, that’s why, when it’s your turn in your team to speak, you speak. And you show you take your teammates seriously through active listening, as demonstrated, just as they do for you. Does that make sense? Good. Any further questions? Excellent. Ready, 30 seconds per person, starting now with team member three, all teams, go!”

The real hope is of course that the astute teacher will be able to transfer these activities into maths and English. Whenever this has been done consistently and with Intent, the Implementation of Cooperative Learning has turned all learners into active teaching resources in the classroom. The Impact of the Sheringham maths SSIF programme speaks for itself. (Note the discreet reference to the Ofsted framework). But more salient to the point this article is making about the value and importance of confidence and resilience as a full-scale subject on par with maths and English is the massive effect Cooperative Learning has on social skills, behaviour and general well-being in the school. Basically, Cooperative Learning bakes the core ingredients of human happiness into teaching-to-the-test-death race that seems constituent in our education system. Interpersonal skills cannot, by definition, be taught through direct instruction from the front of the class. At some point, responsibility must be passed over to future generations. Our contribution to this ongoing process – that many are striving for – will be when we launch the training for Confidence & Cooperation at Sheffield Hallam University on January 17th.  

From Confidence & Cooperation slide deck 4C Being (More) Resilient

As they say, “watch this space.” The next article will look into the practical aspects of the programme and the preliminary evaluation of materials and piloting in selected schools. 

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