virtue insight

conversations on character


April 2016

It’s time to close the school “exam factories”

Educational assessment can seriously damage a child’s health in Britain’s modern schools system.

At least, that is the belief of a union representing educational professionals. A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) suggests the mental health of children as young as six is being put at risk by overwhelming assessment stress.[i]

What is more, there is widespread reporting of self-harm among pupils, with nine out of ten teachers pointing the finger of blame at classroom anxiety. Staff are even aware of children attempting suicide, including pupils at primary school, according to the survey.

The shocking findings highlight fears within the educational community that schools are becoming little more than exam factories, obsessed by grades and league tables. No one can argue the educational development of today’s young people is important but the single-minded drive to improve classroom attainment at the expense of the overall development of children is hugely damaging.

Leaving school and entering the wider world with a string of exam passes will not, in isolation, equip children for the path that lies ahead. Instead of preparing children as young as six for national tests, educational attainment should be complemented with the fundamental development of each child’s character.

The ATL survey, coupled with a growing body of academic research including work conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, suggests there is an escalating call for character education to be given more prominence in UK schools.

Some 84% of UK parents believe teachers should encourage good morals and values in their children and 91% of adults said it is important that schools help develop good character.

Such findings cannot be brushed under the carpet. It is evident that parents see academic attainment as only one part of a school’s responsibility. They want their children to develop a good moral character, which will prepare them for successful and fulfilling lives as flourishing individuals.

The growing call for character development in education has not gone unnoticed by the Government. In 2014, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said that “for too long there has been a false choice between academic standards and activities that build character and resilience” and the two “should go hand in hand.”

The Department for Education established a £3.5 million fund “designed to place character education on a par with academic learning for pupils across the country.” This funding began in early 2015 and is to be repeated this year. With the recent release of the Government’s White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, character education has been given a more prominent seat at the educational table.

Efforts are being made to encourage schools to focus on the development of children’s character, but the ATL survey suggests there is a long way to go. The Jubilee Centre’s Character Education in UK Schools research reported  that 80% of secondary school teachers and 75% of primary school teachers consider that the existing assessment system in UK schools hinders the development of the whole child. The change required is not happening quickly enough for children already in the system.

There is no quick fix to this escalating problem. Teachers and educators may want to move away from the “exam factory” culture, but, for now, schools remain heavily judged on their performance in exams and league tables.

Head teachers and senior staff are reluctant to take the focus off testing because they fear their schools will slip down the “one-size-fits-all” exam league tables and their careers will be jeopardised.

Rather than chastising teachers, stakeholders should openly support “brave” school leaders who make the judgment call that a child’s development is not solely reliant on test scores.

There needs to be widespread recognition that academic attainment goes hand in hand with character development, providing the adults of tomorrow with the tools they need to live a flourishing life.

Michael Fullard, Teaching Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[i] ‘Children as young as six “stressed” about exams and tests’ – available via:



The Rise of the Academy Chain

The Government’s recently announced commitment to ensure that by 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy’ has generated discussion, concern and questions.

The academy programme was initially introduced by the Labour government in 2000 and aimed specifically to turn around schools that were in urgent need of improvement.  The programme rapidly expanded under the Coalition Government from 2010, and as it stands, 14% of primary and 61% of secondary schools have academy status.  In the absence of the usual support of a local authority, school-to-school support mechanisms are fundamental in establishing support networks for academies.  To this end, academies often form chains where two or more academies have a shared sponsor; academy chains are increasingly on the rise.  An academy sponsor is significant in several ways; a sponsor creates the academy, appoints the governing body, owns the estate, and will often determine the underpinning vision and values by which the schools are run.

As a Master’s student at the University of Birmingham, about to embark on a study exploring the values of academy sponsors, the area of critical importance for me, given the scale of this latest announcement, is the ethos of groups of schools that operate under one main sponsor.  What is the vision or ethos of the sponsor and how are its core values manifested in the day-to-day running of the individual academies within its chain? With all schools set to become academies, the number of academy chains in England, as well as the average size of a chain, is inevitably going to increase. A recommendation of the Department for Education (DfE), included in the budget announcement, is that ‘the vast majority of schools work in multi-academy trusts (MATs), allowing them to share resources, staff and expertise to continue driving up standards’.  The implications of expanding an academy chain reflect similar implications of expanding a business – preserving the sense of moral purpose driving the business becomes more challenging with the expansion of its leadership, its output and its profit. The degree to which the vision and ethos of a sponsor of an academy chain is palpable in the daily activities of an individual academy, its staff and its stakeholders is underexplored.

The Jubilee Centre’s research emphasises the role of a school’s ethos in cultivating character and values in its pupils. As set out in the Framework for Character Education in Schools, ‘character education permeates all subjects, wider school activities and general school ethos’. The importance of developing character and values in young people has been recognised in education policy with Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, calling for character-building activities to be integrated throughout the school curriculum as set out during the School of Education’s annual Priestley Lecture in 2014.  Initiatives that form part of a £5million pledge by the DfE to support various character development programmes, include drafting in rugby coaches to teach the sport’s core values to school pupils across the UK; such programmes emphasise the recognition of the integral role values play in education. Embedding core values into schools and manifesting these values in pupils’ daily experiences are vital to character development.

The clarity around a sponsor’s vision for its numerous academies, and the extent to which the individual academies embody this vision, will become ever more vital as this latest expansion of the academies programme materialises; yet this aspect appears to have been overlooked thus far.  With concern over the performance of academy chains, and no clear system for regulating underperforming chains, the move to convert all schools to academy status warrants unease and neglects what should be the focus of any overhaul of the education system – the pupils.

Danielle Wartnaby, Research Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Prof. Candace Vogler, University of Chicago, recently spent time as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Jubilee Centre. In this vlog, Prof. Vogler speaks about the ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’ project that she directs, and of synergies with Jubilee Centre projects.

Prof. Vogler also presented a paper titled ‘A Few Remarks About Self-Transcendence’ whilst at the Jubilee Centre, which is available here.

Prof. Candace Vogler, University of Chicago

Are Facebook, the selfie and Snapchat threatening the moral character and values of young people?

Not so long ago, if a child wanted to contact a friend they probably asked a parent’s permission to use the telephone.

The phone was in a communal space and even if the call took place out of earshot the adult knew it was taking place.

Today, if a young person wants to contact a friend, or a stranger, they will still turn to the telephone but it will be their own mobile telephone, or a tablet or laptop. And the conversation, or digital interaction, will take place on social media, away from prying eyes and ears.

The plethora of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat and the sites’ use of password protection means young people can engage in a series of conversations, interactions, visual exchanges and online relationships without their parents’ knowledge.

But what effect is the new world order having on the development of young people’s character and their perceptions of virtuous behaviour?

A new research project being undertaken by the Jubilee Centre seeks to examine the influence of social media and parents on children’s moral functioning in the second decade of the 21st century. We hope to find out more about the ability of young people, within an online context, to reason about moral issues, enact moral values such as empathy and honesty, and to develop a moral identity that encourages good character online.

Using three studies, conducted over 15 months, we will explore how social media impacts character and virtue and the ways in which parents seek to regulate children’s use of social media. It is often said that young people’s use of private messaging and the posting of selfies are out of control.

But are Instagram and Twitter really plunging children into a moral vacuum? And if they are, can parents adopt strategies to obviate the negative moral impacts of social media and protect the moral flourishing of young citizens?

The Centre has chosen to study social media because of its pervasive influence on young children and adolescents. According to Ofcom, 93% of 16 to 25-year-olds have a social media profile and the time spent using the platforms is spiralling. In 2005, 16-and-overs in the UK used social media 9.9 hours per week. By 2014, that has risen to 20.5 hours. (Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2015). The most popular channels are Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube.

Depending on context and the reasons behind social media use, these popular platforms can spark positive or negative outcomes. It’s not just about the amount of time spent online; we need to know why young people go online. What do they want to get out of the experience?

Social media is another moral terrain that has to be navigated. It has pressures that can force users down the path of virtuous or vicious behaviours. Cases of cyberbullying and trolling, sometimes with tragic conclusions, show there is the potential for a lack of empathy with online behaviour. There are also links between certain types of social media use and narcissism.

An exploration of the nature of character and virtues on social media (including networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat) will look at two distinct classifications of online behaviours and motivations. First, there is self-presentation, exemplified by the cult of the selfie. This is a form of self-disclosure where the primary purpose is to gain attention, to show people who you are. Second, there is belongingness, where the motivation in social media participation is borne of a desire to communicate, to form social connections and seek out information about news and events.

The first of the project’s three studies will pilot new ways of measuring adolescents’ social media use and gather information on the strategies parents employ to regulate their children’s online activity. Questionnaires are being sent to participating schools and we hope to involve 1,000 students from the state and independent sectors, as well as a proportion of their parents.

One of the key investigations will centre on the ways in which parents seek to regulate their children’s social media use and see if regulation, or lack of it, affects young people’s online motivations and behaviours. The responses of children and adults to a range of scenarios are likely to shed light on parenting strategies.

Possible parental strategies might include limiting access to social media, for example, by saying: “I am restricting your iPad or phone use to 7 till 8 at night.” Alternatively, parents might monitor use by checking up on posts and the sites their children have visited. One strategy of particular interest is “pre-arming”, an active parenting strategy that involves the adult talking through how social media use might lead to conflicts in moral values. The strategy sees parents giving advice on how to deal with relevant issues.

Later studies will explore the relationship between adolescents’ social media use and their attitudes and behaviours concerning two moral values: empathy and honesty. This part of the project will explore potential discrepancies in how moral values are perceived or considered in the online and offline world.

The final stage of the project will bring the two previous parts of the research together, allowing the influence of parents on adolescents’ social media use and also the influence of adolescents’ social media use on their moral identity, empathy and honesty to be looked at together.

We hope the research project will allow us to publish evidence-based recommendations on social media use for schools and parents and widen understanding of the influence of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat on young people’s moral development.

Dr Blaire Morgan, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


Polarised debate that pits moral responsibility against social conditions is creating a “damaging impasse”

Does a focus on character and virtues mean that social conditions do not matter? Since joining the Jubilee Centre, I have often been challenged by friends, colleagues, and even Michael Portillo, when I appeared as an expert witness on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, to justify the whole concept of character – let alone virtue.

So how do I respond to these challenges? In an educational context, that’s fairly easy. I argue what seems to me to be a no-brainer – that surely education is inherently all about character; that decades of policy that defined the purposes of education within narrow human capital terms have left a hollowed out perspective where success is judged in quantities of qualifications rather than the contribution children can make to our society.

This is not about indoctrination, this is about growing people who understand their moral commitment to their fellow humans, that share a vision of flourishing, even when they have never heard of Aristotle, and who want to see a better world.

However, that still leaves the charge that by focusing on individual traits, qualities or virtues we are letting society off the hook, we are blaming individuals who are victims of structural forces for not being resilient enough, for lacking the “correct” moral compass.

So what is the balance between social conditions and individual moral responsibility? I think there needs to be more dialogue between the philosophers and die-hard virtue ethicists on the one hand, and the sociologists and culture theorists on the other. Surely it is not one or the other. The reality is both matter.

Of course, people need to hold good quality traits like honesty, kindness and courage, but they also need to live in conditions that nurture and encourage those traits.

Reading up for a project on Character and Values in Marginalised Young People, I am acutely aware of the challenges many young people face growing up in an age of uncertainty and economic austerity. In such a world, if there are not strong “conversion factors,” such as family, education, access to culture and so on, the lure of alternative voices, which may appear to offer the guidance and nurture that is lacking, may be too strong to resist.

In such a case, does the fault lie with the young person who succumbs to those influences, with a society that has allowed those conditions to develop, or with the individual voices who are, ultimately, exploiting vulnerable people for their own ends? Of course, the answer is a bit of all three.

We can’t use poverty and poor social conditions as an excuse for selfish or criminal activity, but we can acknowledge the responsibility of a society for creating conditions that have allowed young people to grow up with distorted and anti-social vices. It is surely time to stop the damaging impasse.

Too often, I have heard virtue ethicists discuss virtue as if in a bubble, as if society and social conditions did not even exist, never mind influencing individuals. At the same time, I am a little weary of people who seem to think that any discussion of individual moral character is in some way letting society off the hook and simply blaming the helpless and the downtrodden. It’s time for a more mature debate.

Dr Sandra Cooke, Director of Partnerships, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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