Schools, Character and Justice

Apr 26, 2015 | Literacy Leadership, Whole School Literacy

Schools cannot teach character while we perpetuate injustice.

I’ve just read some fab posts on teaching character: Summer Turner’s nuanced piece challenging the view that character is superior to knowledge in ‘real life’ and Heather Fearn’s observation that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one successful. This post on Drowning in the Shallow by @ImSporticus on The Fountain of Character contained a link to this powerful interview with Anthony Ray Hinton (from 2:10:35). Hinton showed unrelenting hope in the face of gross injustice. This set me thinking about inequality in schools, and how institutions tend to insulate themselves from reality rather than face up to the impact of their practices, especially on those with the least power.

And that led me to ponder on the character of schools. You see, I’m in the business of showing schools how to teach kids to read. Kids who’ve been let down by ‘the system’ and have arrived at secondary school with very poor literacy, and often poor numeracy. I think that our character is often demonstrated by how we treat those who, seemingly, have nothing to offer. Do we continue to marginalise them or do we do something to resolve or improve their situation?

Students with poor literacy, who are thought not to make a difference to the school’s results, are often not prioritised. Results are seen as the main goal – the crowning glory of the school, their raison d’être. In many schools it is fair to say that a disproportionately large amount of funding and time is invested in pulling up students on the ‘pass/fail’ (4 / 5) borderline; at the same time, those who are not regarded as likely to ‘make the cut’ often have their opportunities reduced further through withdrawal from exams (surely an admission of the school’s failure, not the student’s). The level of investment for these weaker students often consists of special access arrangements, a TA in the room, and the least experienced teachers.

Graffiti - we cry for justice

The character of schools is revealed in the way we view these more vulnerable students, reading years behind their chronological age and predicted grades of 1, 2 or at best 3. Well, they’re not very bright – after all they’ve had years of teaching so a lack of intelligence must be the problem. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, can you? They’re ‘dyslexic’ so we’ll make sure that we put adaptations in place to compensate. It’s their behaviour, isn’t it? If they would just stop being disruptive and pay attention in class, they wouldn’t be in this situation. And so on.

I think that there is a pattern here of placing the problem within the students – blaming them if you like – labelling them. I see very little of schools taking responsibility to change the situation. Sure, there’s not a total abdication of responsibility: extra time in exams, reader / writers, provision of laptops, etc. But what is being done to actually change the situation? Some will say: look, of course we care – we affirm them at every opportunity, so that their self-esteem doesn’t take too much of a battering. And we’ve given them a reading intervention, but they still didn’t make much progress, so they obviously do have severe limitations. All of which is to say, we can’t change the situation – or possibly, it’s not worth the investment.


But schools are not just institutions – they’re made up of people. People like you and me. When we take responsibility, institutions change. Are we going to wring our hands in sympathy, or are we going to take responsibility and be agents for change in our schools? If what we are doing is not working, do we accept failure as inevitable or do we look at other approaches? Do we really look at what is effective practice, or do we take refuge in time-honoured conventions that result in traditional levels of failure?

What if we can actually teach these kids so that they do learn? What if it’s the teaching that needs to change? It doesn’t require a lot of new money or someone’s latest great idea. It’s possible to invest in practices that have been tried and proven successful – not a risk, but a pretty safe bet. The evidence for such approaches has been around for a long time. It’s not a question of whether something can be done; it’s a question how we deal with our own preconceptions, and the value we place on the education of less ‘able’ students.


For an example of what I am talking about, read Emmanuel’s story. From reading at a six-year-old level in Year 10, he gained nine years in thirteen months (including the summer break), went on to gain five ‘good’ GCSEs, including English and maths and is now at a ‘good’ university. Emmanuel’s experience is just one of many whose futures have been changed by being taught to read successfully. It’s a measure of Emmanuel’s character that he has allowed us to share his story so that others can learn what is possible.


While we are debating the merits of character education, let’s remember that our own character – or lack of it – is on display every day in the choices we make regarding our most vulnerable students.

(This post was updated 24 January 2018.)



You may also be interested in:

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – Matthew Effects

A Question of Progress

Pulling the Strands Together

Headline Measures?


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