Bursting the bubble… Will Osborne’s fizzy drinks tax boost character education?

The proceeds of a new sugar tax on fizzy drinks could help strengthen the character of a generation of virtuous young people.

At least that appears to be the hope of George Osborne and the Conservative Party hierarchy. Education took centre stage in the Chancellor’s Budget, with controversial proposals to force all schools to become academies grabbing the media headlines. However, a subsidiary announcement, regarding lengthening the school day, could potentially play a significant part in addressing moves to promote character education.

The money recouped from the tax on sugary drinks will be used to expand sport in primary schools while secondary schools will get additional cash to extend after-school activities, including sports, the arts and debating.

Hot on the heels of Mr Osborne’s announcement, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan reaffirmed the political establishment’s commitment to promoting “character-building opportunities” in secondary schools in the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere.

The paper also outlined the expansion of the National Citizen Service (NCS), hailed by the Government as a “life-changing programme” aimed at promoting the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils. The Tories have pledged to channel more than £1 billion into the NCS to make it the biggest scheme of its type in Europe, covering 60% of 16-year-olds by 2021.

But can taxing the likes of Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite really help boost the character and virtues of students and create “flourishing” citizens for the 21st century? Or is Mr Osborne’s “pop” tax being used to sugar-coat an unpalatable truth about the nation’s education policy?

One needs to examine the purpose of extending the school day and the notional extension of extra curricula activities. The worry is that the additional funding will merely enable schools to put on even more extra tuition classes to simply “hot-house” students in core academic subjects like maths and English. Thus an opportunity to widen and enhance education will be used to extend the narrow curriculum that shackles many students – and their teachers – in schools throughout the country.

Head teachers should be encouraged to use the extra time and money to diversify their educational offer, not further restrict it, and invite students to take part in enrichment activities that promote good character. These include the myriad of better-known activities such as sports, drama, music and dance as well as more obscure but equally effective pursuits including origami, country dancing, gardening and baking. In addition to being enjoyable, such activities enable young people to both develop and “test” their virtues.

After-school activities play a crucial role in character development because that effectively is the raison d’être. There is no academic goal, no box to tick, so there is no temptation, as there is in some teaching, to go for a “quick-win” and progress at break-neck speed to the next curriculum topic. As the Jubilee Centre’s research report on Character Education in UK Schools makes clear, almost 80% of secondary school teachers and 75% of primary school teachers believe the assessment system hinders “the development of the whole child”. Testing is so pervasive – and time-consuming – that other “educational goods”, such as character development, fall by the wayside. When schools run extra-curricular activities, there is more time and space to address children’s key character strengths such as honesty, self-discipline and courage.

The report found that students who were members of a group dedicated to music/choir, drama, art or photography performed better than their non-member peers when they were presented with moral dilemma choices. Of course, it is difficult to say if appearing in the school play improves character, or if children with good character are drawn to tread the boards. However, the correlation deserves our attention.

There is no doubt that after-school activities provide a test-bed for real-life situations; students are able to face challenging choices and embrace new experiences in a supportive environment. Crucially, they learn about character regardless of whether they win, lose or draw. Learning through such experiences, including school trips, residential visits and outdoor activities, is vital for developing the practical wisdom of young people.

By taking education out of the classroom, students also get the opportunity to put different virtues to the test in unfamiliar surroundings. Speaking in front of fellow pupils takes courage but the challenge takes on a different dimension when it involves addressing a public forum such as a community meeting.

Activities that take place outside the academic timetable develop all types of virtues in young people, not simply the performance virtues that impart resilience and self-confidence and encourage learners to hit targets, whatever the targets. Mr Osborne and Mrs Morgan should be equally concerned about nurturing the moral and civic virtues of pupils because it is these that provide the foundations for enriched communal life.

Joining the football or netball team may encourage students to become better leaders and team players while strengthening their resilience, but it should also encourage them to think about what it means to play fair while displaying humility and sportsmanship. Ensuring these activities are character-building, in the most expansive sense, is dependent on the teacher or facilitator running them. There should also be opportunities (which means time) for students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the virtues they have shown. And time, as we know, is a precious commodity on the exam-factory timetable.

Investing in after-school activities is a step in the right direction and the Government should be applauded for seizing the nettle. However, character education and virtues should form a key part of every child’s education; the subject should not be an “add on” after the school bell; it is too important for that. It is not enough for schools to simply extend the school day. Serious and urgent thinking has to be undertaken by policy makers and practitioners to ensure this golden opportunity is one that truly has an impact on the flourishing of future generations.

Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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