Is it possible to teach character and values? (updated)

13 Mar

13 March 2014
Results of poll (12 February to 13 March 2014):

Should “character, resilience and creativity” be taught in schools?

  • They are already (43%, 9 votes)
  •  Yes (38%, 8 votes)
  •   No (19%, 4 votes)


12 February 2014

Vote in our poll (right): Should “character, resilience and creativity” be taught in schools?


Update: 11 February 2014:

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility launches its Character & Resilience manifesto (pdf)

Details of speech by Tristram Hunt

Update: 10 February 2014:

In an article in The Daily Telegraph,  Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt argues that “Teachers must help children develop their character, resilience and attentiveness as well as teaching them to pass exams.”

While his desire to “see a move away from schools being ‘exam factories’ and do more to equip youngsters with the life skills needed in the workplace” is laudable,  surely schools already see instilling character among their pupils as part of their educational ethos.”

However, as we have pointed our in a previous blog post (see below), what is “character”?  

Education has been a political football for too long.   It is time to take the party politics, the personality politics, the personal and the confrontation out of education and have a collaborative approach to the development of education policy, removing it from the electoral cycle.


16 May 2012:

In an article in The Daily Telegraph, “We need to fix Britain’s character flaws”, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, argues that:

The cult of personality has run rampant. It is time to return to more old-fashioned values”:

“Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become.

“Today sees the launch at the House of Lords of the Jubilee Centre of Character and Values, to be based at the University of Birmingham . The aim of the centre is to promote and strengthen ‘character’ within schools, families, communities and companies. It argues that character strengths can be taught, are critical to a life well led, and will benefit all aspects of the country if they are more widely in evidence.

“The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or ‘public school’. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

“The centre seeks to nurture appreciation for Britain’s heritage and all that has been best in human achievement in the past the discoveries, sacrifices and countless actions of service to others. It celebrates the creation of bodies as diverse as the Boy Scouts and the Salvation Army, the work of movements such as Quakerism and national inventors from Alan Turing, the code-breaker at Bletchley Park, to Thomas Crapper, who developed the water closet.

“The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for its creation. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established.

“A stronger grounding in ethics and values from within schools and families, a better example from our political and religious leaders, and a more elevating diet from the media, would have obviated the need for it to be set up. But schools have too little opportunity to teach about character because of their headlong pursuit of exam results, while families no longer provide the settled background that they did a generation ago.”

This is not the first time that Dr Seldon has advocated rightly that “schools should develop children’s character, not just their ability to pass exams“:

” .. schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). The government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school.”

In the Telegraph article he continues:

“Schools are fundamental. They need a more enlightened purpose than passing exams, essential though this is. Opportunities to develop character through serving others, competitive sport, leadership and mentoring, and artistic performance should be open to all .

“A report is published [tomorrow] on the pilot of the National Citizen Service programme, which offers service experience to 16- and 17-year-olds. Its findings may well prove beyond doubt the value of community service. National Service for all in Britain was ended in 1960. Britain should adopt a scheme, as in France, Germany, Israel and the US, where every school-leaver is offered a chance to serve not in the military, but in the community, for a year. It would transform the outlook of young people, and help build a better society.”

Is it possible to teach “character” and “values” and whose and which ones should they be? What is “character”?

The recommendations of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel’s final report included one that:

“Schools should assume responsibility for helping children build character . there should be a new requirement for schools to develop and publish their policies on building character. We also recommend that Ofsted undertake a thematic review of character building in schools.

“To inform interventions tailored to individual pupils’ needs, the panel recommends primary and secondary schools should undertake regular assessments of pupils’ strength of character.”

As we pointed out at the time, this ignores the fact that schools already make great efforts to ‘build character’. A requirement to publish policies on this would be a further distracting bureaucratic burden. How do you assess “strength of character”? What “strength” should it be and what “character”?

Should politicians or society advocate one particular way of living?

The version of history that should be taught in schools is another part of the picture.

The value of the ‘great outdoors’ in children’s development has been advocated by The National Trust while others have debated the life skills that young people should have or argued that learning to fail builds character, too.

In “Adults are to blame“, from an article in SecEd, Philip Parkin pointed out that:

“We need to be aware of adults’ roles and responsibilities in creating the environment in which children grow. Schools are expected to compensate not just for parents’ shortcomings, but also for the pressures adult society imposes on young people.”

Peer pressure and the media’s obsession with celebrity certainly do little to encourage children to take pride in learning or to want to be seen to do so in front of their peers.

Surely the “heroes”/”heroines” we once had the inventors, explorers, scientists, engineers, naturalists, writers, artists, pioneers even political leaders are far greater role models than the tawdry parade of pop stars, ‘reality TV’ contestants, “WAGS” whose fleeting fame is celebrated by the media. Should being famous for being famous really make someone famous?

Is the National Citizen Service the way forward, or is this bringing the state into the territory of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the Scouts, the Guides, Cadets, conservation volunteers, etc?

The fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how do you distinguish between this type of community service and that used as an alternative to custodial sentences? One is voluntary and one compulsory, but both are about helping the community and developing the individual. Can socially useful projects be a beneficial pleasure for one group and a beneficial penalty for another?

Is the National Citizen Service about keeping young people off the streets and appealing to older citizens who get misty-eyed about the ‘good old days’ of National Service, or a genuine attempt to give young people useful life chances and experiences while helping local communities?

Despite the riots, is Britain really “broken”?

Does Britain have “character flaws” that need to be ‘fixed’?

Do we need to teach “character” or have adults condemned the behaviour of “the youth of today” since before time immemorial? As Socrates, according to Plato, may have said:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Do let us know your thoughts

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8 Responses to “Is it possible to teach character and values? (updated)”

  1. Robert 16. May, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    The Telegraph reports the founding of the 'Jubilee Centre of Character and Values' at Birmingham University, bankrolled by the Templeton foundation whose money comes from the late Sir John Templeton, a tax avoiding stock market speculator. The foundation is strongly endorsed by Dr Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College.

    At first sight these ideas remind me of eugenics for the 21st century – whilst promoting schemes for selective breeding are now beyond the pale, building character (especially amongst the lower orders) remains a viable substitute. The underlying problem with all these ideas is that they stem from a Platonic view of society as an integrated organism, a view which is anathema to our strongly individualistic culture.

    Having said this, the national service proposed by Dr Seldon and the thought leaders of the Jubilee Centre is worthy of serious consideration as in principle it is thoroughly democratic and could be powerfully beneficial for participants. However, to succeed it must not simply serve to reinforce current systems of disadvantage and exclusion otherwise it would degenerate into another form of workfare. Here is the rub, as I suspect an unspoken assumption of its proponents is that the scheme will reflect the relative privilege and status of the participants, so for exmaple, an alumnus of Wellington College could expect a stimulating internship with the Jubilee Centre, whilst hapless youths from the 'bog standard' end of society would likely get 12 months litter picking. Of course none of the scheme’s designers would admit to such a vulgar allocation of advantage, but it does seem the most likely outcome. So to deliver the best possible developmental opportunities for all participants, randomise the allocation of national service activities so that there is no preferential treatment or 'draft dodging'. Introducing this radical challenge to entrenched privilege does leave me wondering if the scheme’s promoters would continue to be such enthusiastic social engineers. Somehow I sense a rapid retreat amongst the great and the good.

  2. Richard Fraser 11. Feb, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    BBC: “What’s the point of school?”

  3. Richard Fraser 17. Feb, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    On Twitter: Simona McKenzie ‏@signoramac “@Voicetheunion Nurtured and fostered not taught Children have it already”

  4. Richard Fraser 19. Feb, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    On Twitter: IcingOnTheCake ‏@IcingOnCakeBlog
    “@Voicetheunion @signoramac Some thoughts on here: And yes, I’ve voted /:)”

  5. Richard Fraser 08. Apr, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    “Are the ‘British values’ those of The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph or The Independent? The term needs to be clarified”.

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