It is gratifying for us working in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues to see how the newly-published Summary Report by the Department for Education on ‘Developing Character Skills in Schools’ (August, 2017) cites our work repeatedly as providing leading theoretical insights into character education in UK schools. Kudos for work well done is always to be welcomed and cherished. However, more important than any ‘symbolic capital’ or ‘impact evidence’ gained by this report is its substantive content, and how well it aligns with Jubilee Centre conceptualisations.
There has been a tendency in Whitehall and Westminster to understand ‘character’ and ‘character education’ quite narrowly and instrumentally – often modelling it on controversial US approaches that aim at ‘fixing individual kids’ by providing them with performative skills to enhance educational achievement and general ‘success’ in life. So while lip service has increasingly been paid in UK political circles to the development of the character of the whole child, it has been difficult to translate it into anything amounting the neo-Aristotelian emphasis highlighted by the Jubilee Centre on the intrinsic value of good character and how it cannot be untethered from the internalisation of moral virtues. Notably missing from previous DfE documents has also been any explicit conceptualisation of what ‘development’ means psychologically or educationally in the context of policies on the development of character skills.
It is, therefore, a cause for great relief to witness the new document’s careful outlining of what character education is, what it aims for, and how it can be enacted through policy and practice on the ground. Many of the designators chosen in this report will be music to the ears of neo-Aristotelian sympathisers. Talk of ‘well-rounded, grounded citizens’, their ideal ‘contribution to society’, and their ‘social and emotional’ as well as their performative skills takes us well beyond the narrow focus on grade attainment and employability that we have come to expect from official policy documents in the past. The crowning glory of this document is its insistence on the need to ‘instil pupils with a moral compass…in understanding and interacting with other people’. This is a leaf taken straight out of the Jubilee Centre book – but again it is not the provenance of the argument that matters but its substantive content. For anyone who thinks that character development is about more than just self-confidence, communication skills, grit and resilience, this focus on the need for a ‘moral compass’ will strike a chord. The aim of character education cannot just boil down to the need to cultivate the resilience of the repeat offender. We must ask not only what character is, but also what it is for.
The new report makes it abundantly clear that while the extrinsic benefits of character education for improving academic attainment and employability matter, what justifies such education in the end is the cultivation of traits that help children make a positive contribution to UK society by their flourishing both as individuals and as citizens.
While the report contains a lot of useful conceptualisations – ‘GPSs’ for educators and parents lost in the labyrinth of confusing terminologies – it also offers significant statistical data about school approaches to character education. On a positive note, 97% of UK schools surveyed seek to promote desirable character traits among their pupils. On a more negative note, perhaps, only 54% were familiar with the term ‘character education’. Command of terminology is not as important, however, as good intentions – and there seems to be no shortage of the latter in UK schools.
Given that almost half of schools are not familiar with the relevant core concepts and conceptualisations means that there is considerable work left to do for the Jubilee Centre and other promoters of character development – the flourishing of the whole child – in UK schools. However, the new report paves the way for significant progress in this area, driven by an explicit policy agenda that can now also be backed up by our new Framework, giving schools an easy access to the vocabulary needed to talk more productively about the goals that they already aspire to seek.
Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.