Character and Manners

By Eve Poole, Chairman - Board of Governors of Gordonstoun School.

The FT’s Sarah O’Connor unleashed a bit of a storm when she wrote recently that teaching state-school kids firm handshakes was patronising, and that ‘character education’ had no place in the national curriculum. I should like to contest this both as the Chairman of Gordonstoun school, which invented character education, and as a state-school educated Scot who was lucky enough to attend Lucie Clayton Finishing School in Kensington one summer.

First, confidence and character and totally different things. As I once told some prep-school kids, character is what you have left to fall back on when your confidence fails you: confidence can be faked but character cannot. Both, however, can – and should - be taught. Places like Gordonstoun have the luxury of assets like a yacht, a fire appliance, and the local mountains to help, but the formation of character can be designed into any educational system, whether resource-rich or not. Edinburgh University’s Simon Beames undertook a multi-layered study to assess the value of Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom offer, interviewing alumni as well as current students and their parents, providing a rare longitudinal study about the development of character through education. From this, as I have argued elsewhere, it is clear that the 3 vital ingredients on any character curriculum are:

(1) Learning to try - a varied and repeated out-of-classroom curriculum that is compulsory for all students compels them to try things they would otherwise avoid. The resulting ‘have a go’ mentality this develops lasts well beyond school and inspires a life-long commitment to trying new things;

(2) Learning to fail - having to try everything means that failure is inevitable, because no-one is good at everything. This means that students learn to fail, and they learn that others fail too. They learn that they may need other people to succeed, and they often find that they are better than others at unexpected things;

(3) Learning to try again – if an out-of-classroom curriculum is regular and repeated, students invariably have to have another go, even if they failed last time. So they learn resilience, and about conquering their fears, both about their own abilities, and about how their peers will react to them. Again, this teaches students to pick themselves up, and generates an ability to bounce back for future career or life setbacks.

It would be hard to argue that these are not valuable life-lessons for all children, regardless of class or ambition, and are nothing whatsoever to do with being posh. Indeed, those whose upbringing has caused them to have to learn these lessons early as a matter of survival will have developed far more character than any of the ‘gilded youths’ from the likes of Eton; indeed this is an argument for class diversity in leadership if ever there was one.

Second, confidence is distinct from good manners. A firm handshake is simply that. I too was taught how to shake hands well, on a course at Finishing School, because there is no second chance to make a good first impression. In turn, when I taught Leadership at Ashridge Business School I had to teach this skill to some of our British Ambassadors, who were going out to post without having had the kind of education that covers social niceties, and were terrified about letting down Brand UK by getting it wrong. How I came to attend Lucie Clayton is in itself instructive. I’d spent a year at Edinburgh University studying for an MBA. My aunt, a Sheriff, was horrified that they had taught me finance and economics and all kinds of theoretically useful things, but had taught me nothing about how to work well with people. So she paid for a week’s course for me, on ‘personal impact’, which covered everything from Transactional Analysis and the correct order of the planets, to personal grooming and manners. And as I argue in my book Leadersmithing, what I learned from that is that manners aren’t some mysterious set of rules designed to expose the peasantry, but are tried-and-tested ways of helping others to feel comfortable. It is this other-regarding feature of impeccable good manners that makes us feel charmed by those who possess them, because they make us feel respected and welcome. Particularly at work, working hard to reduce inter-personal friction through good manners improves the working environment and makes work more of a pleasure than a chore: nobody likes working with boors.

My father was a teacher, and with four children could not have afforded public school fees, even if he had wanted to send us there. The state primaries of St Andrews in the 1970s produced the likes of KT Tunstall as well as Silicon Valley nerds and Whitehall mandarins, so I wasn’t exactly in terrible company; and I was lucky that my aunt was able to afford the £245 it cost for my course at Lucie Clayton. But what we need for more kids to have more chances in life is less concern about poshness, and more focus on curriculum design in all schools. And - as we have learned from the breakdown in public discourse over Brexit - as long as we intend to live and work together we will need to teach manners as a vital raw ingredient for the nurturing of happy communities.