Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

Aligning, integrating and applying the behavioural sciences

Formation more than Education

I find that one of the more interesting aspects of my part-time return to secondary school teaching is that of being a form tutor.

The role has a pastoral element built into it not obviously present in classroom teaching or general school management.

For someone interested in the development of children and young people and how their psychology affects their performance at school (and beyond), the role of form tutor offers possibilities of making the kind of difference that most other roles in school life don’t.

What’s more, a good form tutor can create a climate of trust that enables members of his or her tutor group to open up and confide some of the turbulence going on inside their teenage heads.

Recent examples I’ve had to deal with include a 14-year old girl distraught because her mother had started calling her “fat” and “ugly” over the past few months – having previously tended to tell her daughter how beautiful she was. Investigation revealed that the catalyst for the change in Mum’s behaviour was the arrival on the scene of a new serious boyfriend. It looked pretty much to me like Mum was belittling her daughter because the daughter (who was quite well-developed for her age!) could be seen as competition for the attentions of the new male on the scene. If that may sound far-fetched to some, Evolutionary psychologists have found much evidence for this kind of behaviour. The mother’s intent was almost certainly subconscious but the flattening of her budding sexuality caused a lot of damage to the girl’s RED self-esteem.

Discussions around the intense feelings aroused by first falling in-love and telling the daughter that Mum’s emotions were likely to balance out a little more after the first phase gave her some reassurance. What really made the difference though was telling her how I had overheard some Year 10 boys saying how much they fancied her. That put a smile back on her face!

On another occasion one of the girls in my tutor group approached me somewhat hesitantly to say how she felt one of the other teachers was victimising her in class. For a student to initiate a serious complaint about one teacher to another is no easy thing. Students – particulary Years 8-10 (when RED is pretty much to the fore) – tend to perceive teachers in ‘us-and-them’ terms and, indeed, the ethic encouraged among teachers is to close ranks and defend colleagues. (Given how vulnerable teachers are to accusations of impropriety and/or unprofessional conduct, this is hardly suprising.) Assuring the girl that her complaint would be taken seriously and offering advice on how to handle her relationship with the teacher in question in the short term enabled the girl to at least function after a fashion in that class while the matter was investigated.

And then there are relationships with parents which develop in ways they often don’t from the classroom teacher perspective.

Unfortunately BLUE’s Procedures meta-programme means that much of tutor time is spent on administrative tasks – chasing up absences and checking whether planners have been signed and homework recorded. Important as these tasks are, they can take away from relationship building.

The bigger picture…?
Since the mid-1980s successive secretaries of state (of whatever political persuasion) at the Department of Education have been – not altogether incorrectly! – obsessed with academic performance.

Undoubtedly some of the strategies – most notably the introduction of numeracy and literacy hours in primary schools – have produced impressive results. However, many of the initiatives have failed to have the desired effect. There is serious concern whether the Education Action Zones have provided value for money and criticism is starting to build over the successor Excellence in Cities schemes. (There is now even some evidence that improvements in literacy in primary schools may have peaked and there may even be something of a backwards slide.)

There is perhaps more debate than ever over what to do to improve academic attainment. There has been some relaxation of the National Curriculum in England and Wales. In Scotland it has been dumped as a statutory requirement. Wales has axed Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at Key Stage 1 and is considering the same for Key Stages 2 and 3. And the January 2003 publication of ‘14-19: Opportunity & Excellence’, along with the establishment of the Pathfinder concept, is starting a process of massive change in the way education and training for that age group is delivered.

Yet there is still relatively little on the pastoral side. Connexions is the Government’s big idea and the fact that the service is oversubscribed in many schools is indicative of just how needed action is on this front.

Children in the early years tend to carry their parents’ memes. Memes – a concept developed by Richard Dawkins (1976) – are transmittable values, beliefs, attitudes and even memories. Parents’ memes will be reflected in children’s behaviours. As an example, one of the teachers at my school recently rang home to dicuss a Year 7 boy who was consistenly underperforming and misbehaving and who displayed a couldn’t-care-less attitude. His mother’s response was: “Well, I didn’t do well at school either and it hasn’t done me any harm.” Hardly surprising then that achieving in the classroom is not on this boy’s list of priorities!

It’s also no coincidence that the majority of parents who attend parents’ evenings – ie: they are concerned enough about their children’s progress at school to make the time and effort – are those whose children tend to work hard and do at least reasonably well in class.

Evidence shows that, in the teenage years, young people tend to be socialised more by their peers – often going through a partial rejection of their parents’ values. This is a normal and in some respects quite healthy part of the RED vMEME’s journey to establish personal identity beyond the PURPLE belonging of the family. This was termed ‘Negative Identity’ by psychologist Erik Erikson (1964), an element of identity diffusion which the adolescent must overcome to achieve his/her own ‘Identity’.

Even when undergoing a partial (and usually temporary) rejection of the family, the young person’s PURPLE vMEME still has belonging needs. So now the young person tends to find a new degree of belonging in a peer group. But with RED predominant in the mix, the task is to build self-esteem often through recognition within the group.

How that building of self-esteem takes place will depend to a great extent on whether the dominant memes held by the group are those compatible with and including academic success or more centred on delinquency and anti-social behaviour. In his famous study of 14-15 year olds back in 1967 David Hargreaves established that it tends to go one way or the other. The RED vMEME’s drive for recognition and self-esteem does not stop because of the failure to achieve academic success. Rather, it finds ways to ways to achieve its goals through less ‘socially-acceptable’ means. Most teachers in most secondary schools are familiar with this model: the poor performers academically who score kudos with other poor performers by the trouble they cause in class and around the school building. Detentions then replace merits as badges of this kind of success. Nicholas Emler (1984) calls this reputation management.

Thus, the parents’ memes brought into primary school will often be predictors for the kind of memes displayed in secondary school. The child entering infant school, whose parents place no value in formal education, will most likely be an academic failure by the time of leaving junior school and a truant/disruptive student by mid-secondary school.

This isn’t, of course, a route set in stone. All kinds of things can bring about a change in values and, therefore, a change in attitude. For example, Frederick Gough Comprehensive, a school I know in Scunthorpe, is located in a fairly ‘rough’ part of the town. Its school population is not the type one would readily associate normally with good behaviour and academic success. Yet Frederick Gough has been doing substantially better than another, neighbouring secondary which draws upon largely the same catchment area but has had severe behavioural problems and low academic attainment. (A litmus test of a school’s ability to manage behaviour is the willingness of supply teachers to service it! In fairness, it should be pointed out that the other secondary has recently acquired a new headteacher and the description here of the school hopefully will soon be obsolete.)

So what is the secret of Frederick Gough’s relative success? One factor may be that there is a significant emphasis on pastoral care: every student receives a number of one-to-one sessions with his/her form tutor. These function with varying degrees of success, with some form tutors clearly more effective than others and some students memetically more ‘damaged’ than others. Nonetheless, considering its natural population, Frederick Gough does rather well and the emphasis on pastoral care is almost certainly a significant factor.

Where, for all its reforms and intended reforms, the Government is still largely missing the point. As a result, they are targeting ‘education’ at the levels of ‘Skills & Knowledge’. The Neurological Levels model of Robert Dilts (1990) allows for change at any level to impact upon the other levels but makes the case clearly that, for change to be really effective, it has to be at the upper levels of Values & Beliefs and Identity. That means dealing with memes – preferably the earlier in childhood the better.

Understanding ‘Formation’…?
Giving pastoral care takes a teacher beyond education and into formation – the forming of the character and the personality.

We often hear or read terms like ‘formative influences’ or ‘formative years’ – but how often do we really think through what they mean?

I personally didn’t have a clue what formation meant until I was involved on a quality systems project with the Hospitaller Order of St John of God in the mid-1990s.

A worldwide Roman Catholic lay order dedicated to health care – especially of the ‘disadvantaged’ – the English Province had been pioneering new ways of helping people with severe learning disabilities maximise their quality of life. As the number of ‘brothers’ in the English Province was in marked decline, most of the management and delivery of services was carried out by ‘civilians’ – some of whom were not even Christians, let alone Catholics!

In this situation I found myself fascinated with the few new recruits the brothers did have and how they inducted them into lifelong formation which meant for them celibacy, service both to God and to mankind, no personal possessions, religious study, etc, etc – essentially a life of ‘active monasticism’. But note: this was not ‘lifelong learning’; this was ‘lifelong formation’.

Formal education and training, important as they were, were just part of the formation. The brothers were concerned with the development of the whole person. The character and nature of the inner person, if you will, was the centre of this. The brothers were operating at the levels of Identity and Values & Beliefs. How successful they were was reflected in how rare it was for a brother to leave the Order. Not unknown but very, very rare.

As my knowledge and understanding of the Gravesian approach and related Psychology has grown over the intervening years – and particularly since my part-time return to teaching in 2001 – this concept of formation has seemed more and more relevant.

If we are to be successful in dealing with people, then we have to deal with the whole man or woman. Not just their training and education.

If we take the example of back-to-work schemes for the unemployed in places like Hull’s Bransholme estate, it’s no wonder they are relatively unsuccessful because the training provided is aimed at the Skills & Knowledge level. If the values of the intended recipient are not in accord with the values embedded in the scheme, then there is a memetic discrepancy. While employable skills are obviously important, bringing about change so that people actually value having a job is the key to take-up of these schemes.

The earlier one can make memetic interventions in a person’s life the better. Cathy Byrne, Headteacher of The Parks Primary School (on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate) – featured as a Services case study – has stated that she believes interventions should begin (where necessary) at nursery school age and possibly even younger.

If we are to transform our schools and enable them to actually hit all those targets the Department of Education burdens them with – if, indeed, we are to transform our society (greater prosperity, less crime, less drug and alcohol abuse, happier and more sustainable families, etc, etc) – then we have to go beyond education and training. We have to deal with lifelong formation.

To do that, we have to go beyond single institutions or sectors. A cross-boundary approach is needed which can address all relevant aspects which impinge upon the people and issues in question..

Back in 1999 Richard Dunn, then Headteacher of Hemsworth High, near Pontefract, agreed to let a team, in which I was involved, work with the school on what became known as the HemsMESH  project. This was the first attempt to use the Gravesian approach on a macro level in the UK. Dunn’s rationale for this was that he and his staff had improved the school’s score of 5 A*-C GCSEs as much as they could via internal actions at the school. He recognised now the need to engage parents and the wider community – which the MeshWORK approach offered. Though the term wasn’t used at the time, Dunn knew that further improvement in student performance was a formation issue.

As the pace of change in Western societies grows ever quicker – often stimulated by ORANGE’s development and manipulation of new technologies – frequently bringing with it both huge benefits and immense social dislocation, creating what seem to be ever-widening ‘values gaps’, the need to address formation gets overlooked all too often in the drive to train skills and implant knowledge.

Yet formation is clearly the key to what kind of people we are, both as individuals and as societies.



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  1. Cathy Byrne says

    Hello Keith,

    I’ve just read your piece on ‘Formation, more than Education’ with fascination and admiration. So perfectly do you say exactly what I feel.

    I am certain that the Times Ed would be interested in these views – you may have to take out or explain the overt SD content – but it speaks straight from the heart and will find resonance in most teachers’ experience.

    I am also in admiration of your great skill at being a form tutor.Have you thought of a career in Pastoral Care in a school?

    Best Wishes,


  2. Duncan Harper says

    ‘Formation’? Where did you get the term from? I can see its appeal as a term, but I do feel it is rather jargony (?).

    If we are to make SD/etc. accessible we need to use user-friendly terms. Another problem with any term used is that it might have connotations of patriarchal/prescriptive control a la Brave New World. – Suggestions: Lifelong Development, Lifelong Learning and Character Formation, Lifelong Learning and Character Growth. A bit tricky to come up with something all inclusive yet snappy.

    Lifelong Learning is so useful because it fits neatly into the category… ‘stuff that involves schools, colleges, universities and skills training companies’, which, dare I say operates through and on the Blue+ vMemes.

    The Formation angle adds a whole new dimension to this agenda. Presumably it aims at the formation of a healthy Spiral, including the ‘lower’/precursor vMemes. Would it initially be better to have a term that focuses on the pre-Blue bit?… and is then coupled with ‘Lifelong Learning’? The pre-Blue term then would represent an interest group that involves a different bunch of people – select educators (i.e. psychology, school tutors), social workers, volunteer child mentors, youth workers, etc.

    – Following actually reading the article I totally agree that we need to look at the whole person. I think that the pastoral element still needs its own term, if only to introduce the overarching holistic term.

  3. Wendy Baxter says

    Dear Keith,

    Just wanted to say thank you for posting such an interesting article about ‘Formation’.

    As someone currently considering entering teacher training I found it an ‘eye opener’ as well as giving me much food for thought. Well done!