A caricature of character education? Morgan needs a broader vision

John White

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.

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Posted in curriculum & assessment, Education policy
5 comments on “A caricature of character education? Morgan needs a broader vision
  1. Wholeheartedly agree. A broader vision is certainly needed. As the head of a national Education programme in England and an active member of the WWF led ‘Common Cause’ movement (see valuesandframes.org) I would love to bid for funding to design and deliver Character Education. But our programme (Eco-Schools England) and the DfE seem to be quite unnatural bedfellows just now judging by the way Character is being framed and defined by Nicky Morgan and colleagues.

    As you rightly point out ‘Neighbourliness and community spirit limp behind’ these are the values programmes like Eco-Schools can and do activate and reinforce, sadly they don’t seem to be a priority, indeed they are in opposition to the one’s being prioritised… confidence, drive, ambition, etc. It will be very telling to see which projects are funded and the values that they set out to nurture. The Common Cause work clearly evidences the problems associated with simultaneous and confused reinforcement of intrinsic and extrinsic values.

    It is also worth noting here that this fund was announced on Jan 12th; the deadline for applications is noon on February 6th. The application form is 48 pages long and requires huge amounts of detail. Smaller charities, like ours, do not have the capacity to risk dedicating our already highly stretched resources to this sort of application process. The extremely short window for applying would require us to ‘drop everything’ for at least a week to focus on this work. It is a gamble we just can’t take, I suspect many others won’t take the risk either.

  2. Farah Ahmed says:

    Thank you John and Morgan for your posts. I am from a school called ‘Shakhsiyah’, a British Muslim school so called because Shakhsiyah means personal character and the word naturally emphasises the individuality and uniqueness of character.
    I second you both in your disappointment with the narrowness of the values selected and the apparent agenda behind this. Like Common Cause, as a small charity we decided against making an application for the same reasons despite our twelve years of research and work on Muslim character education in a British context.
    I would like to add that a truly national curriculum would be inclusive of a range of approaches to values and character education instead of imposing an ill defined ambiguous set of politicised values linked to the Prevent agenda.
    In the end we ultimately find shared ground between all sorts of values and usually in the aims that educators have. This is why our school has been a supporter of the Cambridge Primary Review which began with aims and values before other aspects of education were examined. In my experience, most educators inherently understand the need for a broad character education as an important aspect of our work. The Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education has been set up at the IOE precisely to encourage collaborative work that brings communities of educators together to find common cause.

  3. Hilary Wilce says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your reservations. As a former education journalist, I’ve written two short e-books for parents about fostering children’s inner strength — but only after careful research and some very hard thinking about what really makes for a strong, flexible, human core.

    In the year since these books were published character education has moved rapidly into the mainstream, which ought to be good news, but — as with all educational bandwagons — it appears to be being almost immediately reduced to knee-jerk Dept of Ed check lists, and a roll call of off-the-shelf values, highly skewed towards competitive conformism. Part of this, I believe, is simply a shallow and lazy of the subject. It’s easy to equate character with grit, resilience and self-control. Much harder to think about other wellsprings of inner strength like love, joy, kindness and integrity.

    But the real danger is the inevitable swing of the pendulum.

    Very soon researchers will start pointing out that teaching grit and resilience doesn’t work (actually this is already happening), so we must obviously ditch any further thoughts about fostering children’s character strength in school and return to focusing purely on academic outcomes. And the whole educational caravan will move on…

  4. Rob Bowden says:

    Reblogged this on Values Soup and commented:
    Another contribution to the wider narrative – including some very useful comments. Let’s keep the discussion alive.

  5. […] first, from John White of the Institute of Education […]

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