The Department for Education has just invited schools and other bodies to bid for money to support projects in character education. Since her appointment last July, Nicky Morgan has shown an especial interest in this area. In a recent talk at Birmingham University, she spoke of “ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit”.
She went on: “We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverance to strive to win…. We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility.” These values are reflected in the bidding invitation. Pride of place is given to perseverance, resilience, grit, confidence, optimism, motivation, drive and ambition. Neighbourliness and community spirit limp behind. Commenting on the announcement, Nicky Morgan said the move “will cement our position as a global leader in teaching character and resilience, and will send a clear signal that young people are being better prepared than ever to lead tomorrow’s Britain”.
Nicky Morgan should be careful. Her predecessor, Michael Gove, infuriated teachers by trying to impose his personal, traditionalist vision on the academic side of school life. He has now been silenced. Ms Morgan is now privileging a similarly idiosyncratic set of values for school ethos. The two visions mesh. The Gove-Morgan ‘reforms’ have all been in the direction of a no-frills, rigorous induction into a traditional set of subjects geared into an equally toughened régime of examining at GCSE and A level. They have been orientated towards success in these tests and the university careers and desirable jobs that this success opens up. To stay the course, those with their eyes on the heights need the perseverance, resilience and other personal qualities now foregrounded.
It is not wrong to highlight values and virtues. Far from it. It is where thinking should begin about what schools are for. The last government recognised this in the aims it built into the national curriculum from 1999 onwards. These were also built around a vision – of young people who enjoy learning, think critically and creatively, possess integrity and autonomy, are responsible and caring citizens, ready to challenge discrimination, committed to sustainable development, equipped to make informed choices at school and throughout their lives.
Nicky Morgan is not wrong to focus on personal qualities, only about the set she advocates. This is tied to a competitive ideology of winners and losers. No politician has the right to steer a whole educational system in this or any other partisan direction. After our experience of Gove and Morgan we badly need to rethink what body should have the power to lay down a national curriculum. To reduce personal or sectional bias, this should be based on the values of modern liberal democracy itself. The 1999 aims made a good first fist of this. David Cameron also had a go last June with the ‘British values’ he wants to see in every school’s curriculum: freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions. If we were to add to these cooperativeness for the common good, concern for the badly off, and the strengthening of democracy itself, we would be on the road to a character education which any democrat could endorse. It would be a long way away from Nicky Morgan’s.