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Fad or Fiction? - The Uncertain Future Of Character Education

Andy Thornton asks whether character education is here today, gone tomorrow or if it’s the future...

  • Fad or Fiction? - The Uncertain Future Of Character Education

Before last year’s general election, the manifestos of both main parties promised more character education in schools – but with Nicky Morgan subsequently returned to the DfE, this is now likely to be turbocharged.

The premier authority for Ms Morgan’s new(ish) drive has been the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based at the University of Birmingham and backed by millions of US dollars – a cash injection that has raised suspicions for many.

Effectively an American import, we might legitimately ask whether this was a ‘gift’ from the political right wing, seeking to clone little George Bushes – or possibly Donald Trumps – on British soil. But look closer and the sophistication of the Birmingham team can not be denied. There is well-researched science, robust pedagogy and carefully-considered practice behind the innovation.

The question is, will any of this integrate with British schools?

Fad fatigue

Let’s cast our minds back to the launch of citizenship education in 2002 – then a new subject looking to enter the school system under first-time Secretary of State, David Blunkett. Much has happened between then and now, and there are clearly lessons to be learned.

In the last year, for example, with citizenship still a statutory subject in secondary schools, I heard an Ofsted inspector ask a conference on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC), “Do you remember that fad for citizenship several years ago?”

Fad? Fad?? It’s a statutory subject! That’s the bit that worries me. Citizenship, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), Community Cohesion, British Values, Character – list them one after the other and they begin to sound like passing fancies.

Yet still we see more tampering by a government keen to create another bolt-on to ‘proper education’. What chance does character education have when schools are suffering from fad fatigue?

A measured approach

Here at the Citizenship Foundation, our popular primary school programme Go-Givers has now been assessed in the most rigorous way using the Jubilee Centre’s Framework for Character Education [PDF], and the research has shown a tangible impact on children’s character – particularly around measures of empathy, problem-solving, resilience and community orientation.

Look again at those measures. Are those traits in your attainment lists? Perhaps not explicitly, but the fact I can name them may be crucial. It illustrates a significant point about the way in which we can identify and review qualities of character.

There is a coherent vocabulary, categories – flow charts, even – which tell us that at its root, ‘character’ is nothing to do with being ‘British’, or behaviourally-good, compliant, nice, shiny kids. It’s about what’s fundamental to our ability to flourish as humans and a society; something we all know at heart, though it’s seldom given this clarity of structure. 

Citizenship started life in a very similar place. It included a set of learning objectives few could dismiss as unimportant, though there was little guidance as to how these should be transmitted to pupils, other than that they should be taught somewhere, somehow.

Like character, citizenship was never about compliance and being ‘good’. It was concerned with independent thought, knowledge of rights and responsibilities, the ability to affect change and the wherewithal to discern political realities and so avoid exploitation. All of which is part of being a productive UK citizen – and all of which demands character, too.

Be brave, Minister

So if we’ve been here before, what can prevent character education from becoming the latest political football to cause resentment?

There may only be two options. One, that character replaces PSHE (often the subject with the least coherence in schools, in effect a bucket marked ‘Everything Else’). Or two, that it becomes an integral framework for social and moral development that runs throughout the curriculum and links to the lives of students outside of school.

Character education could incorporate all previous ‘fads’ – citizenship, SEAL, community cohesion, British Values. Inspected through SMSC, we could begin to develop common standards. Character and citizenship are ultimately two sides of the same coin, but it’s got to be done with rigour. It needs to develop informed citizens, equipped and willing to act on their rights and duties.

This is where Nicky Morgan needs to do more. Without a coherent structure – particularly the expectation that character is building outward-looking citizens, not self-seeking tycoons – character education may be adopted for its impact on personal life and employment benefits.

But we don’t need more ways to increase inequality in a system where the most motivated parents seek out the highest achieving schools. Be brave, Minister. Give the less advantaged every chance to shape the character of their future. Show them how it all works.

Andy Thornton is the CEO of the Citizenship Foundation, an education charity that empowers young people to shape society as equals. For more information, visit www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk or follow @citizenship

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