Last September, a new player entered the English education market. Floreat Education, a private limited company, opened two primary academies in Wandsworth and Brentford. Three more schools have been approved for next year. Unlike some of the companies currently building up chains of schools – American firms like EdisonLearning (the Collaborative Academies Trust) and K12 Inc. (the Erudition Schools Trust), or the transnational GEMS (GEMS Learning Trust) – Floreat seems to be a very English venture. The chairman of the board is the entrepreneur Martyn Rose, former chair of the ENO and head of the Big Society Network. The founder and managing director is James (now Lord) O’Shaughnessy, once a director of policy at No. 10. In 2012, he wrote a paper for Policy Exchange advocating a greater role for profit-making firms in state education – what he called the ‘operating company model’. Floreat was established a year later. Rose came on board in 2014, together with James Cox, COO of the Dune Group (‘one of the most influential global players in fashion footwear’), and Chris Benson of Advent International, a big private equity firm.
Floreat’s selling point is ‘character and academics’: ‘We start with the idea that education is as much about developing young people’s character strengths and virtues as it is about developing their academic knowledge’. Given O’Shaughnessy’s connections, it is not surprising that this is perfectly in tune with government education policy. At the end of 2014, Nicky Morgan announced a £5 million Character Innovation Fund, supporting ‘a package of measures to help schools instil character in pupils’. The aim was to consolidate England’s position as ‘a global leader of teaching character’. Most DfE press releases, and most speeches by Morgan and Nick Gibb, include some reference to ‘character’, ‘resilience’, or ‘grit’. Rugby coaches from premiership clubs are to take charge of ‘disaffected’ children; ‘military ethos projects’ like Challenger Troop are bringing ‘grit’ to the inner cities. At first glance, it looks a bit like a mass-market version of the traditional public school ethos. But the ‘character education’ being promoted by the DfE and Floreat – which has received £124,000 from the new fund – actually has much shallower roots. Like most aspects of Conservative education policy, it is a US import.
The key figure here is Martin ‘Marty’ Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. The 73-year-old father of Positive Psychology, Seligman is the author of books such as Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. His reputation rests on some animal experiments carried out in the late 1960s. By subjecting dogs to frequent, inescapable electric shocks, Seligman discovered that they could be reduced to a state where they no longer sought to avoid pain, even when escape was possible. He called this phenomenon ‘learned helplessness’. His findings became the basis of a theory of depression, and a form of cognitive therapy. Learned helplessness, Seligman believes, can be countered by ‘learned optimism’, achieved through self-control and the careful suppression of ‘negative self talk’. The subtitle of Learned Optimism is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.
Seligman’s ideas have been used by the American military to build ‘resilience’ and ‘bounce back’ in soldiers (he is known to the troops as ‘Dr Happy’); they may have informed the Bush regime’s torture programme; and they are the basis of Floreat Education’s ‘character and academics’ approach. Positive Psychology began to enter American schools in 2005, when the ‘edupreneur’ David Levin met Seligman, and his younger colleague Angela Duckworth, at the University of Pennsylvania. Levin is co-founder of the KIPP chain of charter schools. (US charter schools, publically funded but privately managed, were the model for New Labour’s city academies.) KIPP – the Knowledge is Power Program – is one of the more successful charter chains, with 183 schools in 20 states. It is also a pioneer of what has become known as ‘no excuses’ schooling. This involves an extended school day and year, an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy, a reliance on direct instruction – ‘drill and practise’ – and highly standardised or scripted lessons. The model is geared towards a single aim: achieving the highest possible success rates in tests and exams.
‘No excuses’ charter schools are a product of the test-based accountability systems that have dominated American public education since George W. Bush’s first term. In the same way, English academy chains like ARK Schools and the Harris Federation developed within the culture of ‘hyper-accountability’ – to use Warwick Mansell’s term – created by the Education Act of 1988. The ARK Schools chain is, in fact, closely modelled on the KIPP ‘network’ of charter schools. Both target the inner cities. Both argue that severe economic and social deprivation is ‘no excuse’ for educational underperformance. Both aim to demonstrate – by dramatically boosting test and exam scores – that privatisation can be the miracle cure for decades of failure by state or public schools. Both have a surprising number of financiers on their boards (of the eight trustees on the ARK Schools board, five are hedge fund managers; none has any background in education).
The new character education cannot really be understood without looking at the methods of behaviour management used in ‘no excuses’ schools and their English imitators. These schools love mnemonics – displayed in every classroom, chanted by students – and their mnemonics are quite revealing. SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, Track the speaker. SMARTS: Stand and sit straight, Make good choices, Always 100% on task, Respect, Track the speaker, Shine. HALL: Hallway heads and eyes forward, Arms with finger on lips, Legs straight, Lips sealed. The rules cover the smallest details of students’ behaviour, and the slightest infraction of the rules – for example, failing to maintain eye contact with the teacher at all times – meets with immediate punishment (this is what one defender of the model calls ‘sweating the small stuff’). Sanctions include detentions, a period wearing a special ‘miscreant’s shirt’, or a deduction from the student’s account of ‘KIPP dollars’. (In a training video aimed at teachers in charter schools, a student is told at one point: ‘Laughing is ten dollars’.) Some charter schools push the principle to insane extremes. A list of complaints made by parents against a ‘no excuses’ charter in Texas, Nashville Prep, includes the following: ‘One student received a demerit for saying, “bless you” when a classmate sneezed. He also received detention (1) for saying “excuse me” while stepping over another child’s backpack and (2) for picking up a pencil for a classmate’.
Clearly, children subjected to a regime of this kind have to show considerable ‘resilience’. In Seligman’s terms, they are called upon to convert a state of helpless submission into a willed ‘optimism’ – or, to put it another way, to ‘make good choices’. David Levin’s meeting with Seligman and Angela Duckworth in 2005 was the moment when Positive Psychology became the basis of a new type of character education. Duckworth and Levin used Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues – an 800-page survey of ‘the strengths of character that make the good life possible’ – to define the qualities essential for success in a ‘no excuses’ school:
They removed traits like modesty, spirituality, and fairness, and settled on a list of seven that seemed particularly essential for high academic achievement: zest, grit, self-control, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, and optimism. (Love actually made the initial cut, but, Duckworth says, “Dave didn’t want to have to tell a parent, ‘Your kid is low on love,’” so they swapped it out for curiosity.)
The seven key traits were incorporated in the KIPP Character Report Card, with criteria for assessing students’ strengths of character. For example: ‘Remembers and follows directions’, ‘Gets to work right away’, ‘Recognises and shows appreciation for his / her opportunities’. As Angela Duckworth puts it: ‘it’s not immediately obvious how you’d go about changing poverty … We might not be able to make a family richer, but maybe we can make their kids grittier or more self-controlled.’ The aim is to build ‘performance character’ or ‘achievement character’, at the expense of more traditional kinds of moral character. David Levin is very clear about the difference between the KIPP model and what he calls the ‘values-and-ethics approach’: ‘The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment’. On the KIPP website, a list of the key texts informing ‘our approach’ sets Seligman’s Learned Optimism alongside bestselling self-help books like John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. No values-and-ethics, then: only steps to success, or rules for survival. KIPP’s slogan is ‘Work hard, be nice’.
Here in England, it was recently reported that children at a primary school in North London are being made to keep their hands clasped behind their backs while walking in the corridors (according to the head, the aim is ‘raise the aspirations of pupils and to maximize learning time’). As this story suggests, the ‘no excuses’ model is now penetrating English state schools. And the main point of entry is academy chains like ARK Schools – whose brand of ‘high quality inner-city education’ is copied wholesale from KIPP – and Floreat. But Floreat is doing more to give KIPP-style ‘character education’ a certain academic and philosophical credibility. James O’Shaughnessy is a visiting fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. The Centre has also been awarded a ‘character grant’ by the government. But it is chiefly funded by the John Templeton Foundation, a multi-billion dollar endowment which aims to ‘serve as a philanthropic catalyst for the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality’. (The head of the foundation, John Templeton Jr., who died earlier this year, was an evangelical Christian with links to conservative Republican lobby groups; he was a member of Mitt Romney’s committee for ‘National Faith and Values’.)
O’Shaughnessy is also chair of the International Positive Education Network, launched at the beginning of last year. The IPEN steering committee includes Martin Seligman himself, as well as Angela Duckworth. Another member is Jeff Olson, a Florida-based entrepreneur. He is the owner of Live Happy Media, and IPEN are ‘grateful for the support of Live Happy and their team’. Live Happy is ‘a magazine and lifestyle company dedicated to promoting and sharing authentic happiness’ (their website notes that ‘keeping workers happy can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line’). Olson has had a long career in sales and marketing. He is currently CEO of Nerium International, a ‘relationship marketing’ firm selling ‘exclusive age-defying skin care products with patented ingredients to help people look younger’. According to Olson,companies like Nerium have helped thousands of people – the sales reps or ‘brand partners’ – to achieve ‘financial freedom and personal excellence’. Hence, perhaps, his interest in the new schools of Character and Virtue.