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True Grit: On character education

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Professor Robin Alexander, Chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, challenges the current focus from the Department of Education on ‘character education’.

John Wayne stampThose who thought that the departure of Michael Gove might give schools a breather before the 2015 election, liberating them from the weekly explosion of initiatives and insults, reckoned without the ambition of his successor. These days, few education secretaries of state are content to do a good job, deeming it more important to leave an indelible mark in the name of ‘reform’. To this lamppost tendency Nicky Morgan appears to be no exception.

Her wheeze, and it’s a biggish one, is to make Britain ‘a global leader in teaching character and resilience…ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit.’ To that end, DfE invited bids for projects showing how ‘character’ can be built, followed by a grand ceremony on 16th March at which the 2015 Character Awards of £15,000 were presented to 27 schools, with a £20,000 prize for the best of the best. Morgan modestly defined her chosen legacy as ‘a landmark step for our education system.’

In the same way that New Labour claimed, witheringly but inaccurately, that before the imposition of its national literacy and numeracy strategies England’s primary teachers were ‘professionally uninformed’, so Nicky Morgan’s happy discovery of something called ‘character’ implies that schools have hitherto ignored everything except children’s academic development; and that creativity, PSHE, moral education, religious education and citizenship, not to mention those values that loom large in school prospectuses, websites and assemblies and above all in teachers’ daily dealings with their pupils, were to do with something else entirely. Remember the not-so-hidden ‘hidden curriculum’? If there is a ‘landmark step’ then, it is not character education but its political appropriation and repackaging.

So what, in Morgan’s book, constitutes ‘character’? Its main ingredients, as listed in the guidance to applicants for the DfE grants and character awards, are ‘perseverance, resilience and grit, confidence and optimism, motivation, drive and ambition.’ (Readers will recognize ‘resilience’ as one of the most overused words of 2014). Rather lower down the list come ‘neighbourliness’, ‘community spirit’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’

Like so much in recent English education policy, this account of character is imported from the United States. The Morgan character attributes are almost identical to those in the eponymous Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character, and in Dave Levin’s evangelising Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Here, then, we have a melding of the no-holds-barred values of corporate America with that fabled frontier spirit portrayed by John Wayne. ‘Grit’ anchors the education of character in both worlds.

But there’s a third element. In a speech in Birmingham last November prefiguring the DfE announcement, Morgan said pupils should ‘leave school with the perseverance to strive to win … 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.’ No prizes for spotting the source of that little homily. These are unambiguously the values of England’s nineteenth century public schools: values directed not to the nurturing of mind but to physical prowess on the games field, an education veritably conceived as no more or less than a game of rugby or cricket. And not just education: life and death too, as immortalised in the Newbolt poem in which the playing field morphs into the trenches of 1914-18:

‘There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight
Ten to make and the match to win
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead
Play up, play up and play the game.’

If character is important, which it surely is, is such an idiosyncratic and unreconstructedly male account of it good enough, and is it for government to impose this or any other notion of character on every child in the land, of whatever inclination, personality, gender or culture? In one of two excellent blogs on this subject that I urge prospective applicants for the DfE awards to read, John White thinks not. He says: ‘Nicky Morgan is not wrong to focus on personal qualities, only about the set she advocates. This is tied to an ideology of winners and losers.’ (As, appropriately, is DfE’s Character Awards scheme itself). He reminds us of the considerably more rounded values framework appended to the version of the national curriculum that was introduced in 2000 and superseded last September, and he argues that ‘no politician has the right to steer a whole education system in this or any other partisan direction.’ For White, Morgan’s foray into character education is further confirmation of the need for curriculum decisions to be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to a body which is more representative, more knowledgeable and culturally more sensitive.

The other recent must-read blog on character education is by Jeffrey Snyder in the United States. He cites evidence that ‘character’ is more likely to be determined by genetically-determined personality traits than the efforts of teachers, and indeed he argues that anyway nobody really knows how to teach it. In this context it’s worth asking what those pupils subjected to 1850s/1950s character-building really learned, and whether there is indeed a correspondence between success on the playing field, in work and in adult life. And since you ask, did fagging and flogging really make for manliness (whatever that is) or were they merely perversions by another name?

Snyder argues, too, that the ‘perseverence, resilience and grit’ account of character ‘promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point of view’ adding, tellingly: ‘Never has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values and ethics.’ As a result, ‘character’ is as likely to be harnessed to the pursuit of ends that are evil as to those that are good. ‘Gone’, adds Snyder, ‘is the impetus to bring youngsters into a fold of community that is larger than themselves … When character education fails to distinguish doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw.’

Snyder’s third objection, and it applies equally to the Morgan view of character and to the Gove definition of essential knowledge, is the sheer narrowness of the educational vision being promoted. In this context, it’s worth asking how the Cambridge Primary Review’s 12 educational aims might be classified. Are ‘wellbeing’, ‘engagement’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘autonomy’ about character or something else? Do such responsive and responsible CPR aims as ‘encouraging respect and reciprocity’, ‘promoting interdependence and sustainability’, ‘empowering local, national and global citizenship’ and ‘celebrating culture and community’ have anything to with resilience and grit?

Actually they do, for it takes considerable grit and resilience to live the values of reciprocity, interdependence and community in a culture of winner-takes-all individualism; or to champion sustainability when the prevailing ethic is rampant materialism and unfettered economic growth; or, as so many educationists have learned to their cost, to hold firm to a principled vision of children’s education in the teeth of government atavism and disdain. Captains of industry and sports personalities do not, as Morgan appears to believe, have a monopoly of courage and determination. In any event, the imperative here is to tie perseverance, grit and resilience to socially defensible aims and values, for, as Snyder noted, that for which we teach children to strive must be educationally worthwhile.

With the national strategies Labour gave us what one CPR witness called a ‘state theory of learning’. Will the coalition government’s bequest be a state theory of character? (Which, for those who know about vospitanie in Russian and Soviet education, has similar political overtones). Let’s hope that Morgan’s judges put vision, ethics, social responsibility and plurality back into the frame.

We can presumably trust that proposals to reintroduce fagging and flogging are unlikely to be shortlisted, though these days one never knows.

Originally published by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Canterbury Christ Church University is leading the South East Regional Network of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

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