Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful

When I first had a flick through the latest inspection handbook a particular word caught my eye. It was the word ‘thrive’ and it pleased me considerably to see its inclusion. It appears in the teaching, learning and assessment sections as an outstanding grade descriptor:

‘They thrive in lessons and also regularly take up opportunities to learn through extra-curricular activities.’

Encouraged by this I wanted to see where else it appeared. We know from the previous framework that words like ‘resilience’ now feature. In the section quoted above, the phrase ‘curious, interested learners’ appears in the preceding sentence.  Nicky Morgan has made it clear that she values the importance of character education, so no doubt the concept of children being able to thrive appears a number of times in the latest schedule. But it doesn’t. In fact it appears on only one other occasion, as an outstanding descriptor for overall effectiveness:

‘The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being enable pupils to thrive.’

When making a final judgement on overall effectiveness, the handbook states that ‘inspectors must use all their evidence to evaluate what it’s like to be a pupil in the school’. Presumably then, in order to make this judgement, evidence needs to be found that shows that pupils are thriving. The handbook however makes absolutely no reference in the ‘Sources of evidence’ sections as to what this might look like in terms of ‘to thrive’. A quick check in the accompanying Common Inspection Framework confirms no mention of it there either.

So this is not entirely helpful. It raises a number of important questions that need to be addressed. What does it mean, for example for a 5 year old to thrive, compared say with a 10 year old? How do we measure how well children are thriving and whether they are making progress? How can we benchmark this across the schools? In short, does anyone know what a thriving child looks like?

The dictionary offers two particular definitions which are helpful: ‘To grow vigorously’ and ‘to progress towards a goal’. This makes clear the link between accelerated progress and assessment without levels, as teachers are deciding amongst themselves what the expected rates of progress against a set of stage-related goals might look like in their schools. The process of thriving is therefore a fluid and ever-flowing state of being that is likely to be turbulent, dynamic and self-motivated. A growth mindset appears to be par for the course.

We discussed this at a recent Whole Education Network meeting of partner heads. I asked the question: How can we create a framework that allows us to measure effectively how well pupils thrive? What followed was a lively discussion on what ‘thrive’ meant and how it contributes towards the development of the whole child. I asked another question: How can we measure how well a child thrives from one school to the next? I was mindful not to over-measure, because as soon as it becomes quantifiably measureable it is probably no longer worth doing. By and large, we drew a blank.

Most of us will understand what we mean by the term ‘thrive’ in a social sense. A thriving local market is likely to be very busy, with lots going on; a sense of buzz and excitement filling the air. A thriving pond is likely to be packed with an abundance of pond life and healthy plants all enjoying crystal clear water. There are certain conditions that need to exist for things to thrive. As humans, we are no different. For my own children to thrive, I’d want them to be fit, healthy, loved, secure, happy, fulfilled and so on. These are basic biological and emotional needs that we all need in order to thrive, known as human givens and described in greater detail on the Human Givens Institute website.

A recent research report concluded – not surprisingly – that ‘the large majority of primary school teachers still believed that the modern student assessment system hindered the development of the whole child’. The 2015 report was published by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham and was called ‘Character Education in UK Schools’. The report authors define character education as including ‘all explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people develop positive personal strengths called virtues’. The underlying purpose of the research project was to attempt to demystify the complex and hitherto unknown terms such as ‘virtue’ and ‘character’ and to find a way that enables us ‘not to know what virtue is, but to become good…’ In other words, if we can measure how pupils become good, we can begin to understand how well they thrive. Presumably, if children possess good character and are virtuous then they are thriving. As a parent I wouldn’t disagree with this. The problem of course is what does this look like and how do we measure it?

The research report makes some interesting conclusions. It attempted to measure and rank a number of character traits based on Year 10 students’ perceptions of themselves. These included traits such as ‘curiosity’, ‘creativity’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘hope’. What was of interest was that there was very little difference between boys’ and girls’ perceptions of themselves. However, there was a distinct disparity between how the teachers perceived the students’ traits and how the students perceived themselves.

The top five reported character strengths according to the students were: ‘gratitude’, ‘humour’, ‘teamwork’, social intelligence’ and ‘kindness’. Only ‘humour’ appeared in a similar list of strengths according to the teachers’ perceptions of their students (the top three being ‘humour’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘fairness’). At the other end, according to the students, ‘spirituality’ fared lowest along with ‘self-regulation’, ‘leadership’ and ‘love of learning’. This is a rather sad indictment on the existing state of play if young people do not see themselves as being leaders or possessing a love of learning. It appears we are failing a future generation. This makes the case for character education and creating the conditions that allow pupils to thrive even more important, especially in an educational system that is not conducive to the development of the whole child. (On a more positive note, let’s be reassured by the fact that modern teenagers see themselves as being grateful, kind, good team players, funny and all with high levels of EQ.)

What was also interesting from the report was that only a third of teachers interviewed had received specific training on how to teach character education.  This was even lower at primary where only 24% believed that their training had prepared them well. As a result, 77% of primary teachers reported that they had to continually seek advice from their peers when planning character education.

As a profession, and indeed as a society as a whole, it seems we are unable to define what it means to thrive. It would be interesting to find out how the term is interpreted during an inspection and how evidence is gathered and evaluated. The research report makes clear that there is very little link between character strengths and academic performance, so dwelling on outcomes is not necessarily going to be helpful. Instead, schools need to find a range of purposeful and relevant ways in which they can show that pupils are able to grow vigorously or realise a particular goal. This makes the case for developing an assessment without levels framework even more important as it is through this that schools can demonstrate how well their pupils flourish.

I perhaps disconcertedly suggested earlier that we drew a blank at a recent Whole Education Partner Heads’ meeting when discussing how to measure ‘thrive’. This wasn’t quite so, as the word ‘flourish’ was offered as the preferred term that we should use to replace thrive. It doesn’t appear at all in the Ofsted handbook, which was presumably why we liked it. The dictionary defines it simply as ‘to achieve success’. This is something that we feel far more comfortable at defining, articulating and measuring in our schools. So – in the words of the bard himself quoted in the title of this post –  if we are to really and truly create the conditions that allow our young people to thrive, then we must be bold and continue to find ways in which we can measure their successes but without the need for tests.

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