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‘Ridiculous’? We think not! Why We Welcome the ‘Character Education’ Fund

The Department for Education has recently announced a £3.5 million grant fund to support the development of character education for schools, colleges and organisations. This has been met with calls of ‘ridiculous’ and ‘limp’ by Eleanor Doughty of the Telegraph. So we at Yes Futures, a charity that believes in empowering young people with key life skills, have taken it upon ourselves to see just how ‘ridiculous’ this character education fund really is. We believe in the development of soft skills such as confidence and resilience as being fundamental to the growth of young people. However, upon a closer look at the argument Eleanor Doughty makes, we realise that there are questions surrounding the fund that perhaps need to be addressed: What is character education? How do you measure it? How can you teach ‘character’? In order to help us answer these questions we surveyed a range of school staff for their input. We will be looking at these questions and the implications of the new fund over a series of posts of which this is the first.

So why does Eleanor Doughty call ‘character education’ limp? She suggests that the phrase means ‘nothing’. Although it is a broad term and can be considered a subjective one at that, the government does make an attempt to explain it in more precise terms. Nicky Morgan calls character education a ‘set of character traits, attributes and behaviour that underpin success in education and work’ and the government lists ‘perseverance, resilience and grit’ as some of these traits. However, both ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ essentially refer to the same quality as ‘perseverance’. It seems as though the government has included as many adjectives as possible in hopes of not excluding any given the subjective nature of the term. However, this method only serves to make their definition of ‘character education’ broader and therefore potentially more vague in their very attempt to explain in. So perhaps it is no surprise that Doughty considers the term to mean ‘nothing’ as it tries to be everything.

Yet by eliminating unnecessary synonyms, ‘character education’ can be defined much more succinctly in this style. The government can also look towards its aim in putting this fund in place to help explain the term. The grant comes with the aim of better equipping students to adapt and thrive in the modern world; ‘to meet the challenges of employment and future life’. Therefore the education must encompass the skills necessary to meet such challenges and these skills by very definition are ‘life skills’.

Now that we know what ‘character education’ means, or what it should mean, let’s turn our attention to why it is needed. It has long been recognised that there is a connection between the non-cognitive skills that character education propagates (such as confidence) and their effect on achievement.* Even the school staff we surveyed all agreed on the importance of character education to a student’s education. The majority (86%) of those surveyed were teachers

with real experience of engaging students on a daily basis, so this stance is not purely a case of broad, top-down policy research either.** Interestingly, when surveyed, we used the term ‘character education’ broadly, letting each member of the group project their own interpretation. Even so, all agreed on its importance, highlighting perhaps, the irrelevance of supposedly vague phrasing.

However, there is much to be desired in the realms of achievement for our students. So many of our ‘young people lack the skills and attributes that are so important in guaranteeing university places and graduate jobs.’*** In fact, the government reveals that the initiative for the fund comes in light of the warnings from business leaders about the lack of these exact ‘soft skills’ within school leavers. These skills include ‘basic communication, team work, good manners, self-control, responsibility and punctuality.’ So since there is a skills gap to be filled, clearly there is a need for education to embrace ‘character education’.

In fact, even Doughty admits that the ‘state sector needs a boost to bridge the gap between the social education implicit in top independent school education.’ Of course, we could argue that ‘social education’ is as unclear a phrase as Doughty suggests ‘character education’ is! But we imagine it is supposed to mean the ‘soft skills’ that business leaders are looking for. At this point, surely Doughty is actually supporting the need for a fund that helps develop these. So is character education really ‘ridiculous’? We think not. While the phrase could benefit from a more concise definition, there is a clear need for the soft skills development it alludes to and any fund which proposes to help develop these skills is welcome.

* Murphy, Richard, and Felix Weinhardt, Top of the class: The importance of rank position, 2014

** From a recent survey conducted at a Teach First conference.

*** CYP, 2010

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