Schools proposing to audit pupils’ characters should mind their own business

When did the world decide that the corporate model is the ideal template? The inexorable march towards business speak and a commercial style of operation appears to be infecting every aspect of our lives, from health care to education, from politics to the arts.

Sometimes, it feels as if we’re all becoming a part of somebody else’s branding exercise. Last month, my husband quit his engineering job, severing ties with a company he has been with for over ten years. There were several reasons behind his relatively sudden decision, but most of them relate to the increasing prevalence of what one might call “corporate bullshit”.

“Nobody helps each other out any more,” my husband said to me. Everyone’s time has to be logged on a spreadsheet; as a result, nobody is motivated to give their time for anything other than what will get a tick in the box. Engineers are under ludicrous pressure to provide “accurate estimates”, the oxymoron apparently lost on a management team that seem to have little to no understanding of what engineers actually do.

My father had the same experience, and I watched as his effervescent passion and technical brilliance were slowly eroded by the drip, drip, drip effect of timesheets; he worked for small-minded money men, faceless suits with no comprehension of the fact that high-quality engineering requires free-thinking, imagination and flair.

In education, where my own experience lies, a depressingly corporate tone is now the norm. The simplest of pedagogical principles are dressed up in the flowery language of over-sell, making everything sound more complicated than it needs to be. We don’t teach any more – we “cascade” and we “expedite”.

Managers spout a bewildering plethora of executive sound-bites and every school has a self-conscious “vision” for its future, shaped by the leadership team. I nearly lost it at one staff meeting in which a middle leader exhorted us to “facilitate those water-cooler moments” – by which he meant “talk to each other in the staffroom”. I think.

But the problem is not just the meaningless turns of phrase that drive us all to distraction in the workplace and provide endless fodder for the ever-brilliant team of satirists at Modern Toss – it’s far more serious than that. The corporate world is infiltrating the very heart of what we stand for. As someone who deliberately chose a career path away from the treadmill of commercialism, I am disquieted by the subtle shift in culture.

Recently, I received a conference invitation from a company called Osiris, an independent training provider for teachers. So enraged was I by its contents that I tore up the leaflet in a manner reminiscent of the mythical dismembering of Osiris himself. Around half an hour later, I decided that a much more productive response would be to fish the offending item out of the bin, piece it back together and vent my spleen in writing.

The conference, to be held in March 2016, is on “building character” in students. It seems that the government has a “new model for character development” as part of the “2016 national agenda for character education.”

Any sane person should already be feeling queasy.

To help us with this terrific new framework (the details of which I simply cannot wait to hear), the flyer explained that the conference will furnish its delegates with the following:

  1. A new model of character development for your school and individual pupils. (Give that some thought for a few seconds and tell me it isn’t nonsense).
  2. Strategies to identify and audit character. (Yes, you read that right: identify and audit character. I can’t wait to see the spreadsheet they’ve created – or maybe it’s a whole new piece of software? Either way, I’m excited).
  3. Clarity over which character traits your school should focus on. (Personally, I will be arguing for wantonness and dissipation).
  4. Ideas to build character in lessons, across the school and outside of school. (If anyone mentions paintballing or trust exercises, I will not be responsible for my actions).

The leaflet states that delegates will also hear from an Ofsted representative on how character will be inspected in 2016 (can you even imagine?) plus views shared by a representative from everybody’s favourite global brand: McDonalds. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he is invited.

So this is the situation in which we find ourselves: spreadsheets for auditing our children’s very character development, driven by bureaucrats with about as much personality as a dampened sponge.

There is only one response, and it lies in resistance.

I will not do it. I will not even discuss it. As Head of Citizenship in an excellent state school, I will not audit the characters of our students, and if the government or our management team want it done, they can go find some other mug with no morals and a shaky sense of self.

If this is the future, I may become a hermit.

Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. You can follow her on Twitter @emma_c_williams and visit her website www.emmacwilliams.com to see more of her work.

Filed under: Features


Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.


  1. Yep, it’s the reifying of the soulless bureaucracy. Corporate entities are given the legal status of persons, they accrue the power, status and resources of kingdoms, and they maintain their existences by asserting legal/istic definitions of authority and responsibility through a completely non-democratic hierarchy of control, and they negate empathy.

    I believe you are right Emma, that it is not just an intrinsic human right, but a dire necessity to describe the world in terms of how people and personhood, I mean in terms of what it is like to be the person who is affected by whatever policies and programs the bureaucratic entity has created within its myriads of committees and legal think tanks. What virtually all bureaucracies lack is truly open communication amongst the people who work at them. The result is that the honchos come to inhabit their own particular power bubbles with less and less truthful information able to get in because their aids and assistants are all disposed to letting the honchos hear what they want to hear.

    Karl Popper explained why democracy is intrinsically better [ie not nearly so bad] as all the alternative forms of government and modern bureaucracies demonstrate time and again why corporate dictatorship is ultimately an evolutionary dead end.
    Sorry if that is a bit abstract but I was rushed and have to run off to Xmas with family….

  2. If Ofsted are planning to inspect “character”, then schools are obliged to do it. Otherwise they are likely to be classified as “requires improvement” or worse. The driver seems to be the dangers of extremism among young people and the defence is child protection. My concern is about the means being used. It is heavy-handed and bureaucratic. It is a Big Government approach to addressing a social problem that is best addressed at family level. It is in families that children learn values and develop their individual personalities. The proper role of schools is to assist parents – not to take over from them. The way Ofsted are expanding their grip on these issues puts them on the road to being the thought-police of future years. What sort of society are we building?

  3. Lisa Pietrow says

    This “theory” is well advanced in Canadian elementary schools. My children are assigned a “virtue” every month. The curriculum is being “embedded” with aboriginal “ways of learning” as a method of reconciliation and recompense for wrongs done in the past. Western society is held up as a poor example – a civilization which is destroying environment. Chanting the name of our recently elected snowboarding Prime Minister was heard throughout the halls. A generation of lemmings is on the rise.

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