Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Three Musketeers of Education

(Not one of the Three Musketeers) 
Tony Blair (remember him?) told delegates at the 1996 Labour Party Conference, "Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education." I'm not going to offer my opinion on the success or otherwise of Labour's education policy when in government.  What I'm interested in for now is his rhetorical device, "education, education, education". 

This is more guesswork than scholarly source criticism, but I reckon that Blair was borrowing from Demosthenes. "Who's he when he's at home?" I hear you ask. Well, Demothsenes was one of the mightiest orators of ancient Greece. One day a pupil of his asked the great man, "What are the first three principles of oratory?" He replied, no doubt with an appropriately dramatic gesticulation, "Action, action, action." See the resemblance? 

The old Greek rhetoricians believed that persuasive and compelling oratory had three essential components: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. No, that's the Three Musketeers. What I meant was, logos, ethos and pathos. I believe that a successful school will also incorporate those basic elements. Let me explain:


'Logos' is Greek for 'word'. In rhetorical terms this refers to the matter of the speech and the reasoned arguments used by a speaker to win over an audience to his point of view. When applied to a school 'logos' means the subjects that are taught; arts, maths, sciences, languages, history, geography and so on. This is the essential stuff of education; conveying information and enabling students to understand what they are learning. The school sets challenging goals for student achievement and attainment in the subjects they study. We want our students to leave Matravers with the best possible exam results and/or vocational qualifications. That way their education will open doors of opportunity for further study, training, or the world of work. Ethos and pathos without logos are little better than well meaning sentiment. But if all we offer is the ‘logos’ of education, then we are failing our students. We want Matravers to be an academically successful school, but that's not all. We must not lose sight of:


In ancient rhetoric this meant that the speaker’s background or character contributed to the persuasiveness of his speech. A convicted con man might be able to deliver an eloquent speech on business ethics, but who would listen to him? A man who has never left the comforts of life in the UK might be able to give a snazzy PowerPoint presentation on the value of overseas aid. But you would find the words of someone who has devoted their lives to helping the poor in Africa much more meaningful and persuasive.

And so it is with a school. We need to get the ethos right. Education is an exercise in character formation. We don't simply want to stuff our student's heads with knowledge. We want to help them to become rounded individuals with a strong sense of moral purpose. That's why the school challenges poor behaviour and demand that students treat staff and each other with respect. More positively, we encourage students to look out for one another and get involved in organising events for good causes. Ethos means endeavouring to inculcate in our students the virtues of hard work, consideration for others, honesty and integrity that will enable them to become valuable members of the community and good citizens. 


Rhetoricians wanted to do more than change people's minds. They aimed at winning their audience's hearts. Closely reasoned arguments and good character will only get you so far. The orators also appealed to the emotions by speaking with feeling, relating affecting anecdotes and deploying vivid poetic language. A school also needs to have a big heart, offering a supportive environment where students feel safe and cared for. This, however doesn't mean an "Aw bless!" attitude that is indulgent and lacks challenge. A good parent will care enough to demand that their children behave well and will encourage them to fulfil their potential through creative inspiration, self-discipline and hard work. So will a decent school. 

In the words of W. B. Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire." It is for that reason that the governing body is dedicated to ensuring that Matravers offers students an education that has logos, ethos and pathos. That is what lies behind our drive to become an Outstanding school.