Book review: Taught Not Caught by Nicky Morgan

Empowered by disempowerment, the ex-minister finds her voice…

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character
Nicky Morgan
John Catt Educational
128pp, £12

ISBN: 978-1911382331

Who on earth rattled Nicky Morgan’s cage?

Rarely have we seen someone who has been so rejuvenated following ministerial banishment, so visibly empowered by disempowerment.

Thus we witness the former education secretary openly pronouncing on the limitations of government policy, gaining the confidence of her colleagues by being elected chair of the Treasury Select Committee and then attending to what she clearly sees as unfinished policy business: her commitment to character education.

At the Department for Education, Morgan didn’t quite get time to leave her mark. In truth, much of her time seemed to be spent scrubbing at some of the unseemly marks left by her flamboyant predecessor.

She also had to defend an uneasy public narrative around why a government that had offered academy freedoms to school leaders was now intent on forcing all schools to become academies. Something that had been brandished initially as a prize of liberation was now waved at us as a form of coercion.

It meant that people like me – old-fashioned enough to believe that my governors and community knew the needs of our school better than London-based politicians – kicked back until forced academisation, along with much else in a ragbag white paper, was quietly ditched.

That national fracas meant that some of us never quite twigged the character theme. We sensed that something was going on in the departmental margins, but character education didn’t gain much public traction.

It obviously means a lot to Morgan, hence her new book, Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character. It’s a refreshing read because it has the optimism of good education at its core. This is especially welcome since it comes from a former education secretary who presided over a pretty mechanistic phase of public education, part of the bleak ongoing trajectory of a narrowing curriculum and unsubtle accountability measures.

In her introduction, Morgan quotes the Jubilee Centre’s 2017 A Framework for Character Education in Schools. Schools, it says, “should help prepare students for the tests of life, rather than a life of tests”.

Now she tells us.

The tone of the book is set with a battle cry for politicians to look beyond Whitehall’s narrow bunker and deliver a key ingredient in social mobility.

She puts it like this: “A truly one-nation government must not accept that only some people deserve the opportunities to build character that will help them to get on in life.”

Education’s holy grail?

We also get lots of exhortations as to why character education matters, with various examples based on visits that the author has made on a tour of schools and academies, plus thoughts on whether the development of character is something that could or should be assessed.

If parts of the book are predictable – role models are a good thing, extracurricular activities are to be encouraged, resilience matters – then it’s because this is a topic that often provokes misty-eyed rhetoric. It’s hard to write about character education in any other way – it’s almost universally sought as the holy grail of good schooling.

Morgan’s book makes a convincing case that character education is the entitlement of every child from every background. What I like most is that the text is inclusive and not ideological. It tells us why character education matters, but doesn’t prescribe a way that it should be taught. Instead it serves us useful real-life examples.

This lack of prescription is not because Nicky Morgan thinks character should be optional in every school. On the contrary, she considers it a birthright. The book ends with a deliberate and direct question to readers, to us: “What’s your next step?”

It’s a good question, and one that if we are to reclaim education on behalf of our young people, we need to be able to answer.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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