Character Education used to be the “invisible curriculum”, the personal traits that developed as a result of the school’s culture. Not any more. Character Education is coming to a curriculum near you.
Character Education is the education that makes pupils moral, civic-minded, healthy, compassionate, ambitious, resilient… The list of adjectives is long. Often couched in woolly phrases such as “educating the whole person” it is nonetheless a difficult term to define. Perhaps the best definition I’ve seen is a slight modification to Albert Einstein’s famous quote;
[Character] “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
Character Education is very current. Even a previous Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has written a book about it. Yet its constituent parts have been around for years. Terms such as “social and emotional learning”, “life skills”, “PSHE”, “thinking skills”, “health education”, “citizenship”, “outdoor learning” may be familiar. As might be “school values”, “golden rules” and “code of conduct”.
Why is it current? There is a popular consensus that the current generation of school leavers are less able to cope than previous generations. And they can’t cope because they are spoilt, lack moral fibre and lack “gumption”. If they can’t cope they can’t succeed in life. There are two causes for this “Snowflake” generation. Firstly, “helicopter parents” who mollycoddle, pander, over-manage and don’t set/enforce boundaries. And secondly, schools that focus too much on exams, not Character Education activities.
Character Education and extracurricular activities
Another popular belief is that pupils from independent schools are more confident and resilient than their state educated peers. A study by AQR International published in January 2017 seemed to confirm this. It found that on average, pupils at independent schools were “mentally tougher” than those at state schools. Defining mental toughness as “the mind-set that every person adopts in everything they do” the study tested four qualities. They were; control (of destiny, emotional control), confidence (self-belief, interpersonal), commitment (goal setting, determination to achieve) and challenge (risk taking, learning from mistakes).
Independent schools have long argued that they are stronger on Character Education because they provide more extracurricular activities. In October 2017 The Sutton Trust also published research confirming the importance of extracurricular activities on life skills. They concluded with a call to action for state schools to improve social mobility through, in effect, Character Education.
So, we should expect an increase in the number of clubs, trips, outdoor activities and “broad curriculum” activities. Not that some of these life skills are explicitly taught. For example, there isn’t a “perseverance” lesson. But a pupil can achieve a better result by exercising perseverance. Some schools call Character Education the “invisible curriculum” for this very reason.
Character Education within the curriculum
So seriously is the English Department of Education taking Character Education that it is funding research into it. Specifically, The Jubilee Centre takes the viewpoint that the virtues that make up a good character can be learnt and taught. In other words, packaged and modularised. It’s Framework for Character Education in Schools defines four desirable virtues of Character Education; Moral, Civic, Performance and Intellectual. It goes further to suggest that these virtues can be taught through the current 14 curricular subjects. The idea being that some curricular subjects lend themselves more to a particular quality of character.
Character Education; Where next?
Just as I pasted in the Jubilee Centre’s graphic I learned that the government has stopped funding awards for Character Education. Instead it will invest in a life skills programme for 12 “social mobility cold spots”.
Whatever the merits of the Character Education funding scheme, a new scheme takes time to deliver results. And a new scheme needs money. Providing extracurricular activities requires an extended day. Even trying to stuff Character Education into the existing curriculum still requires time for teacher training.
From his experience, Tony Little, the former Head Master of Eton College suggests that character isn’t taught but “happens”. In his book, “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education”, he suggests that schools need to set the context for Character Education to happen. It’s about culture (teachers, pupils, roles, respect) and many communities (classes, tutor groups, houses, clubs). “…There is no silver bullet to the development of character, but a host of small ways, regularly and repeatedly given…”
I suspect that the legacy of all this Character Education activity will be more pressure on extending the school day. More pressure on schools and teachers. And yet, in all the discussion I’ve read about Character Education, the role of parents rarely comes up. It’s as though the onus for teaching life lessons and character lies with schools, and schools alone. Teachers can’t do everything.