There was a time, not so long ago, when the concept of ‘character education’ was spectacularly unfashionable. For some, I would imagine that it conjured up dire images of an authoritarian approach towards education championed by enthusiastic advocates of muscular Christianity. No longer do our independent schools educate children for careers as colonial administrators in far-flung and inhospitable corners of the world. Similarly, we no longer prepare children for the wretchedness of trench warfare or the moral strictures of ecclesiastical life in Victorian England. Where once we boasted of our ability to develop mental and physical toughness (cold showers and all that), we now focus on nurturing compassion and promoting an understanding of well-being. I believe that the progress that we have made since my own School days has been almost entirely positive. We all know elderly people who chose to reminisce fondly about the brutality of their school days but such people will always remain something of an enigma to me.
Of course, it is possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose sight of the enormous benefits of adventure education. Membership of organisations such as the Scout movement has plummeted in recent years. This decline has been accelerated by the pandemic and atrociously lax approaches towards safeguarding. I doubt the movement was helped by the nightmarish World Scout Jamboree that took place in South Korea this summer. Described as ‘a survival game gone wrong’, images of overflowing toilets and flooded tents did little to promote the joys of camping or life in the great outdoors. Anxious parents must have wondered if they had mistakenly signed their children up for an episode of the Squid Games.
It is not just concerns about health and safety that have stymied efforts to take children away on school trips. Risk assessments, consent forms and mountains of administrative tasks have resulted in some schools refusing to continue offering such activities. Stressed teachers grumble about excessive bureaucracy and, post-pandemic, we are in danger of children growing up without ever experiencing the fun and magic of school trips. It is sad that many children’s only experience of adventure is virtual. A whole generation of children are growing up being able to scale a rock face on a PS5 controller but are entirely ignorant of the adrenaline rush and pure joy that accompanies the sense of accomplishment you feel when you overcome your fears and reach the top of a real climb.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of accompanying Maltese Cross (MC) House on their weekend trip to the Lakes. It was fantastic fun and the boys enjoyed rock climbing, paddle boarding and gorge scrambling (ghyll walking). Arguably the biggest children on the trip were myself and Simon Baker (MC’s Houseparent). We laughed a good deal and threw ourselves into the activities with a great deal of enthusiasm. It turns out that the boys quite enjoyed watching us capsize our kayaks in Coniston and wrestle with the physical demands of climbing.
Simon is a fierce advocate of such activities and suggested that I should write a blog in celebration of such trips. As we clambered up a gorge in our wetsuits and buoyancy aids, Simon pointed out how supportive the boys were of one another. Older boys in the house helped younger boys navigate obstacles. Those who were a little hesitant were reassured and encouraged by those with greater confidence. We were only as fast as the slowest member of our team and the boys were incredibly attentive to the needs of their friends. Our expedition was enjoyable precisely because of the huge generosity of spirit that existed between the boys. Simon, and his deputy James Gregory, faultlessly model the values that they wish the boys to embrace.
It was wonderful to see leaders emerging within each group. Those who assumed such roles did so with a gentleness and a clear desire to share rather than to dominate. Anton Lam, House Captain, showed incredible fortitude when wrestling with a particularly difficult section of a climb. He refused to be defeated and he provided us all with a masterclass in resilience and humour. The boys responded by providing encouraging cheers and applauding his steadfast refusal to give up.
Our children are amazing and they thrive in the great outdoors. Real life scenarios such as gorge walking provide a safe context within which young people can learn important life lessons; lessons every bit as important as what they learn in the classroom. The CCF, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and House Residentials, all provide opportunities for young people to grow in confidence through the physical and mental challenges they provide. This year, a number of our Sixth Formers will participate in a World Challenge Expedition to Morocco and others will accompany Mr Crombie for a return trip to Ghana. Life should be full of adventure and wonderment. There is nothing in the virtual online world that compares with the miraculous beauty and extraordinary variety to be found in the real world.
It is the case that such activities are ‘character building’ but not in an austere or old-fashioned way. Outward bound trips support our physical and emotional wellbeing. It is difficult to think of a better way of developing the soft skills that are so sought after by future employers.
We returned to School exhausted but with a renewed appreciation of this most important aspect of School life. One of the distinguishing features of schools like Rossall is our strong focus on adventure education. Its continued provision is dependent upon the dedication of our amazing staff who go above and beyond to ensure that our children benefit from experiences that they will doubtless remember throughout their lives.
Above all else, such activities build trust. I trusted the boys who belayed for me though I did fear that they might struggle with my weight should I lose my grip and suddenly slip. The new ISI Inspection framework places great emphasis on pupil wellbeing and the development of character.
Thankfully, character education is back in vogue and perhaps this is because we are mindful of what we are in danger of losing. It is possible to teach ‘character’ through the medium of literature, drama, religious studies and other aspects of the formal curriculum and my colleagues and I can give improving lessons in Chapel or share inspiring life stories.
However, these lessons may well be forgotten. In truth, character is not taught through academic study but developed through lived experience.
Headmaster of Rossall School