Last term I found myself sitting opposite someone from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate needing to explain how I knew what I knew.
This was confounded by the certainty that he had seen what we both saw – my conversation with him was simply the final piece in the jigsaw that he needed to confirm that we were both right...
Sometimes it really does feel like a very strange profession.
But then I remember that this triangulation of knowledge is the same approach that we often impress upon our students.
Evidence is king, and the methods by which we derive it are crucial.
We don’t just gather it for Ofsted, we do so for our own confidence and to celebrate achievement, we do so to check errors and instigate improvement, and we gather it all for a quite vast range of audiences. So sat there at a little table crammed with piles of papers and folders deposited like tributes before the altar of HMI, I was aware that all I needed to do was deliver the truth.
My meeting was the last point of a complex journey navigated in a single school day. I was sure he’d seen our school at its usual best. The trouble I faced was that my conversation was to revolve around such ineffable areas as spiritual, moral, social and cultural education/development (SMSC), our approach to tutoring, and – most importantly – the school’s ethos, vision and values.
Nerves kick in and I grew worried that it might prove tricky to demonstrate, even with my own piles of paper to add to the hoard already on the table.
Ethos is a little like a slightly obscure impressionist painting in that different people might see it in different ways, but still inside anyone who knows paintings knows it is good.
However, as I looked at him and began to form my sentences as carefully as I might, I knew we were on to a winner. I had evidence, my colleagues had evidence, we had evidence for the evidence, life was going to be fine.
You see, at the time, I had been working on sections of a new guide produced by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham and it is to this I turned.
The Character Education Evaluation Handbook for Schools has since been published and is available from their website as a free series of four downloads. Clearly mine is a vested interest, but even so I am happy to extol its virtues with it being free and well trialled (anyway, I only wrote a small part of it).
So, in the rest of this article I will explain how using such a free tool has helped me to evaluate my school’s work and how it can help set you up with some much-needed evidence, too.
Evidence of character
In my eyes, a school’s ethos always revolves around the manner by which our students develop character qualities that suit them, help them flourish in the wider world, and enable others to develop through positive social action.
Section 2 of the handbook has a useful grid for secondary teachers (and one for primaries too) exploring a range of areas from ethos through environment to expectations and leadership, with key observations showing whether the school is focusing, developing, establishing, or enhancing their contributions in each area.
Having recently read the draft copy and sat, as I was, in front of the inspector, I felt confident we were some way down the road to the “enhancing” category (now, some months on, I have my copy downloaded and have a little Excel file ready to go).
So to quote the box for Ethos and Enhancing in this grid, I said that I felt “the whole-school community is seen to actively embrace and action the school ethos and its core values”.
Anyone hearing this, not least the inspector, but possibly parents, governors or others, might then ask me how I know.
It is quite a fair point. Professional judgement must be of prime importance and yet we should always be able to provide reasons for our views.
Five times a year I face the same question from our governors: how do I know our ethos is as I say it is; how do we ensure outstanding outcomes in this most ineffable of areas?
They study our improvement plans and nod at the green shaded boxes before asking how we know things have gone well and what we might need to do to improve.
In both the case of the HMI and the school governors, our plans are only as good as our evidence, and while the governors might have confidence in us they must be approaching things critically for our own good.
But the handbook addresses these concerns in an open and non-prejudicial manner. Ostensibly it focuses on character education, and is brilliant for helping schools address their coverage in this respect, however, the tools are very adaptable and can be used for many other purposes across the whole school improvement plan and right down to individual reflection on lessons.
So, taking the vision and values as a starting point (as explained in my previous article on school websites – Character, ethos and your school website, SecEd, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2i9xuxu), we can see that if “the school’s virtues are displayed in one central place” they are focusing rather than developing their ethos.
However, if they are integrated into many areas of the school then they are establishing the ethos in their environment, and better still they might be enhancing their ethos if in all areas.
The handbook’s grids are a starting point for further formative study, or perhaps a waypoint to see how the study progresses.
When I am working on such things I begin by shading the judgements in on the grid before gathering evidence – as I believe we ought never to underestimate our own professionalism; we know instinctively when something is developing or established in school and it is from this basis that I then seek to triangulate my assumptions.
Doing this over a period of months I could gather plenty of evidence to either substantiate or make me question my beliefs.
I favour the methods I know work for me in my school. I am a fan of focus groups to gather student voice, and of short mixed surveys for staff. I like observing behaviours in corridors while on lunch duty, and I find formal interviews with set questions just a little tedious. However, they each have their place.
Section 3 of the handbook covers several methods and offers simple instructions to help get the most from the time available.
Heading back to the setting for this article, the up-shot was that I had plenty of evidence to place before the governors and much to say to the inspector.
Character – nothing new
Personally, I do not see an aspect of school life where character can be ignored. One of the reasons I feel some malign “character education” as a subject is that they think exponents such as myself see character development as “new”, when in fact we see it as old and perhaps the most established reason for an education there can be.
Character is nothing new and is at the heart of social mobility and key to the success of core lessons, clubs and skills development.
There can be little doubt offering opportunities to consider courage, for example, will help as much in learning from mistakes in an engineering or science lesson as they will in helping a student to share their concerns over a friend’s mental or emotional wellbeing.
Great character education does not tell the student who to be, but it does offer both caught and taught opportunities. Yes, these do occur in every school, and yes they have done since schools and education began.
Yet, we miss a trick when we don’t focus in on what we do instinctively and look to see what we might do better. The tools in this free handbook help.
There are several resources available now, including courses and auditing tools produced by organisations of standing such as the PSHE Association. Many of these are excellent and worthwhile, but they are not often free.
As our school budgets seem to dwindle I like quality and I love free. Please do have a look at the handbook on the Jubilee Centre’s website and then let me know what you think by adding a comment or via Twitter (see below).
So in the end, my grid, my student and staff voice, and my audit of the curricular, co-curricular et al are ready now for whoever might need more than just my word as a professional.
- Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv