Character? It is not enough...

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

It is true, of course, that delivering effective character education will play a role in raising students’ aspirations and outcomes, but this is not the whole story, says Dr Mary Bousted

Damian Hinds recently gave a speech promoting “character education”. This is not a new concept.

After the First World War the political class became gravely worried about the soldiers who returned from the battlefields unwilling or unable to believe in a God who saw all things (if that was the case, why did he not see the horrors of the conflict and find a way to stop the carnage)?

Revolution was in the air across Europe. The upper classes, who had most to lose, feared that the fever might infect the English working class. So the search was on to find a way to give all English citizens a stake in their country.

This thinking did not extend to economic equality. The upper classes did not want what they termed “a communism of the material”. Instead, they focused on a “communism of the immaterial” – a shared culture and heritage which was every man’s (and, reluctantly, woman’s) birthright. What Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” could be an inheritance for all.

Character education is a 21st century version of this thinking. In a society riven by economic inequality, where the numbers of children living in poverty are increasing, and set to increase further, what, the politicians ask, can we share? What do we have in common?

Education secretary Damian Hinds, like his predecessor, is very keen on character as our common denominator. In his first speech after taking on the role, he pronounced: “You have to believe you can achieve. You have to stick to the task in hand, bounce back from the knocks that life inevitably brings to all of us.” (Guardian, 2018).

He has come back to these themes time and again, not least in a speech in February (DfE, 2019) and in his announcement in May of a new advisory group of experts in character education, set up to look at how to support schools to run more activities.

Of course, it is undoubtedly true. Life does indeed bring us all knocks. But some young people are knocked harder and more often than others. And the numbers are growing – the latest figures show the number of children living in absolute poverty increased by 200,000 in 2017/18. Relative child poverty is also up.

As a result, 30 per cent of children – or 4.1 million – were living in relative poverty (after housing costs) in 2017/18 in the UK; 70 per cent of these children were in working families (DWP, 2019).

The effects of child poverty on educational attainment are clear. Persistently disadvantaged pupils end primary school a year behind their more advantaged peers. By the time they take GCSEs the gap has widened, to 19 months. Lower educational outcomes of persistently disadvantaged children start at birth and grow exponentially in their first few years. Forty per cent of the gap in educational attainment has been created before children even start school (EPI, 2017).

Politicians faced with these uncomfortable truths could do one of two things. They could commit to tackling child poverty so that fewer children find their lives blighted by circumstances over which they have no control. Or they could seek to distract from the policies of their party by promoting a concept which, ultimately, condemns poor children for their poverty.

We know that persistent poverty blights children’s sense of self, harms their mental and physical health, and makes it far, far harder for them to bounce back from “knocks”. They are just too bruised and battered to do so.

It is, moreover, hard to take seriously Mr Hinds’ exhortation to schools that sport, creativity, performance, volunteering and links with work should all be part of the curriculum when, on his watch, with inadequate funding and the insistence on the EBacc, schools have increasingly had neither the money nor the freedom to provide these character building opportunities. It is not enough, Damian, to will the ends without providing the means.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Further information

  • Education secretary focuses on ‘soft skills’ in first big speech, Guardian, January 2018: http://bit.ly/2WznPQA
  • Education secretary sets out five foundations to build character (Damian Hinds speech), DfE, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2ReQlWC
  • Education secretary: “Character and resilience are key to social mobility”, DfE, May 2019: http://bit.ly/31vMo4p
  • Households below average income: 1994/95 to 2017/18, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), March 2019: http://bit.ly/2XIUEvP
  • Closing the gap, Education Policy Institute (EPI), August 2017: http://bit.ly/2ZrVg9z


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