Of all ways in which the vote for Brexit has shone a light on the state of our society, one finding is both clear and profound: Britain is becoming a more heterogeneous country, both culturally and economically, with fewer shared values, a suspicion of elites, and a weakening national identity.
This phenomenon is not limited to the UK. The picture is true to varying degrees across the Western world, as governments and societies struggle to adapt to economic globalisation and large scale movements of people. In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, Charles Murray describes the situation in the US, where the notion that there is a set of life experiences and mores that are commonly shared by all sections of society – which Murray considers to be the keystone of the great American experiment – is in rapid decline.
But what has this got to do with character education? Well, let me give you an example from my own work with Floreat Education, a multi-Academy trust I founded. We work in a mixed area of West London, with large numbers of families for whom English is an additional language and with high levels of religious observation. The main centres of community life are the Gurdwaras, Temples, Mosques and non-conformist Churches, but there are very few secular venues where people from a range of backgrounds can gather.
Floreat has been active in the community for two years, attempting to launch a new primary school, and have been staggered by the lack of interaction between the different communities. This isn’t a case of black vs white, or indigenous vs immigrant. Nothing so straightforward. Rather, it is a case of people living parallel lives where there is strong bonding within communities but very little bridging between them.
One of the few secular institutions that can cater for all groups is a community school, and this is where the focus on character virtue development can be transformative. In speaking to a range of parents, we found very high levels of interest in the idea that a true education should, as well as pursuing academic goals, be concerned with the moral development of young people.
Many parents look to Church and faith schools for this very reason, but as followers of the Jubilee Centre will know one does not need to have faith to believe that character matters.
Floreat’s mission is to bring the practice of character virtue development into mainstream secular schools. We base our approach on the 24 traits identified by Seligman and Peterson in Character Strengths and Virtues, and it is providing a rallying flag around which parents from a range of backgrounds can gather.
This is more than simply a souped-up version of British Values; rather, it is the idea that there are universal truths about how to live well with other people, and that those truths have been recognised by all major cultures and religions in time and space.
Putting an explicit and purposeful attempt to develop good character at the centre of school life (and you can find out more about our programme here) can act as a powerful integrative force, in three ways. First, it draws its content from many sources, and is therefore relevant to the pupils studying it, whatever their background. Second, it shows them that truth can come in many forms and from many directions, and that people should be open-minded and curious enough to look for it in anyone.
Finally, it paints a vision of the good life, a flourishing life, in which true virtue is achieved by being active in the world and living a life of meaning and purpose in the service to others. And if we are to rebuild trust in our increasingly diverse society, what could be more important?
Lord James O’Shaughnessy is a Senior Fellow in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. He is also Founder and Senior Adviser at Floreat Education.