Letters: We have to teach good character by example

These letters appear in the 11 April edition of The Independent

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I was interested to read the article by Hilary Wilce “Lessons for life” (9 April). As the headmaster of Box Hill School in Surrey, I often have cause to paraphrase the words of the Victorian educationalist J F Roxburgh when I say that our ideal Boxhillian will be “useful at a dance and indispensable in a shipwreck”.

Most of us don’t really want to work with someone who can decline bellum in Latin or expand mathematical brackets, but being on a team with someone kind, resilient, perspicacious and hard-working, well, that is always going to be another matter.

Ms Wilce asks some important questions about character education and whether we can actually teach it at all. The point about respect – for yourself and for others – being the “wellspring of character” is well made. Faults of character tend to stem from a lack of self-esteem and an egocentric narcissism which obscures the needs of others. However, I feel that two crucial elements of analysis were missing, as we seek to look at what schools can do to continue to place character development at the top of their educational agendas.

The first is what I refer to as “intelligent doubt”. The idea, born from critical thinking – which incidentally can be taught in schools and is a thriving part of the curriculum at Box Hill School – that differing views may be equally valid and that truth can sometimes be subjective is an important part of understanding that received thinking (even from the headmaster) can be wrong. The second, and perhaps more important, point is that character has to be modelled in order to be learned. If we surround ourselves with weak, sly or unkind people, we in turn will become devious and uncharitable.

But if the leaders, friends and teachers in our lives consistently model kindness, steadfastness in times of difficulty, forbearance and a sense of duty and moral focus, these traits will be instilled in those around us.

It is not a phenomenon limited by age or gender. Staff can learn from students, who “keep us young” and on our toes. Children can learn from seniors, and we can all become better in community. That has been the Box Hill way for 55 years and will be so for many more to come.

Corydon Lowde
Headmaster, Box Hill School
Mickleham, Surrey


HilaryWilce is right to be concerned that “grit” might be this year’s fashionable education accessory. Thomas Arnold, Rugby School’s greatest headmaster, held three basic tenets for education: religious and moral principles, academic ability, and gentlemanly conduct.

Encouraging “gentlemanly conduct” is our way of “teaching character”. It may sound old-fashioned (and, by the way, we’ve been taking girls for 40 years) and, more than 200 years later, it cannot be regarded as a fad.

Grit is certainly in the mix, but so are compassion and tolerance. Allowing the whole person to flourish is the whole point of Rugby.

Peter Green
Headmaster, Rugby School, Warwickshire


The end of key stage 2 assessments have become “primary school leaving exams”, according to David Cameron. I was unaware that the Education Reform Act (1988) had been repealed. Our 11-year-old children are now being subjected to premature judgements such as “failure” and “mediocrity”.

I was under the informed impression the Act promised entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum, not merely coaching for maths and English tests – with the label “failure” as the potential reward for six years of primary education.

Professor Bill Boyle
Tarporley, Cheshire


We don’t need this giant window box

Jane Merrick (8 April) asks if, instead of the Garden Bridge, why not have lots of small ones instead? Sadly, the answer is that small projects for greening local areas would not deliver the kudos that the originators of the proposed Garden Bridge require.

The Garden Bridge Trust, Thomas Heatherwick and Boris Johnson speak of the bridge as “the people’s bridge”, as a gift to Londoners (forgetting the £60m from the public purse) but really it is part of a growing trend, in London, for “destination making”, and what Boris sees as “branding opportunities”, where the business case seems to trump aesthetic and social considerations in planning decisions.

The beautiful stretch of river that will be defaced by this giant, galvanised window box is not just “an iconic backdrop” but a wonderful destination in itself, and has been for centuries.

The open riverscape, the views of the city, ancient and modern, from the banks are appreciated and valued by Londoners and visitors from all over the world. But these more subtle pleasures are less financially quantifiable and thus more difficult to sell to the corporate world.

This bridge is not the sort of “gift” we want – it lacks any sort of humility or respect for its surroundings.

Glynis Jones
London W11


I totally agree with Jane Merrick’s excellent article on the controversial Garden Bridge. Existing green spaces need care and attention, one of the biggest being Kew Gardens which is under threat from funding cuts. Derelict sites and patches of grey space could be transformed, not just in London but in any other urban area in other UK cities.

Scrap the Garden Bridge.

W-K Cheung
London SE1


Adopt Asimov’s robot laws

You report that “Killer robots could get away with war crimes” (10 April). Isaac Asimov, author of science fiction novels, foresaw this problem in 1942 and posited three laws of robotics to be imprinted into every “positronic” brain:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

Enshrine these laws in a UN resolution, with the presumption that any country utilising machines which does not employ them shall be assumed to be guilty of crimes against humanity.

Pete Elkington
Llanishen, Cardiff


Fallon stabbed himself in the foot

Michael Fallon says that Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Apart from being an unnecessary piece of personal abuse which demeans the accuser, Fallon’s use of the term back-stabbing is misconceived.

Back-stabbing involves treachery and/or deceit. At no time did Ed promise to brother David that he would not stand for election as leader of the Labour Party. Ed openly opposed his brother and did so in accordance with his party’s election rules. Ed was not disqualified from standing simply because of his relationship with David.

More to the point, it could be said that in so acting Ed was showing a streak of ruthlessness, which is curiously enough rather encouraging. Putin is ruthless and admired for this trait. The Tory press is determined to show Miliband as a geek, in contrast to the stately Cameron. In my book, better an assertive geek than an out-of-touch and will-o’-the-wisp aristocrat.

David Ashton
Shipbourne, Kent


If anyone is involved in an argument with another person and has to resort to a personal attack on that person, then they have already lost the argument. Michael Fallon’s attack on Ed Miliband is a perfect example of this.

Valerie Crews
Beckenham, Kent


At last we have a party of the left

We continue to hear convoluted analysis of why the SNP is well ahead of Labour in the opinion polls in Scotland. Surely there is one simple reason.

For 39 years, since Denis Healey got an IMF bailout, the UK has had either a right-wing government (Callaghan, Major, Brown) or a far-right government (Thatcher, Blair, Cameron).

For the first time in a generation, part of the UK has the opportunity to vote for a genuine, credible party of the left. Electors are predicted to make this choice in droves. Is there not a lesson here for the Labour Party?

Red Ed? I wish.

Rod Auton.
Middle Handley, Derbyshire


Kevin Pietersen  vs Darth Vader?

Your cricket correspondent Stephen Brenkley (9 April) refers to the possibility that Kevin Pietersen may “not play for England for a thousand million light years”.

Would this mean he would be banished to a distant galaxy far, far away?  A light year is, of course,  a measure of distance,  not time.

Bernard McGill
Romiley, Stockport


Last words on Richie Benaud

Mourning, everyone.

Mike Shearing
Tongren, China