Developing children’s character is more important to their future than purely focusing on getting good grades, Tristram Hunt said today.
The shadow education secretary claimed evidence now showed that building skills such as resilience, curiosity, self-control and grit were more essential than academic achievement when it came to succeeding in life.
Speaking at a conference in London this morning, Mr Hunt said that while the drive to ensure children get good academic results was a "noble aspiration", the focus on this alone has been unintentionally harmful.
His comments come the day after education secretary Nicky Morgan announced a raft of measures, including projects run by former armed forces personnel, which she said will help schools instil character in pupils.
Researchers and experts agree that the "ancient ideal" of building character has a key role in modern-day education, Mr Hunt said.
"Resilience, curiosity, discipline, self-control, and grit; whether at school, home or work, the evidence seems to suggest that possessing these skills in abundance is a crucial determinant of life-long success.
Even more so, in fact, than pure academic attainment,” he said.
Successive governments had spent the last few decades of education reform “straining every sinew in the pursuit of raising attainment”, Mr Hunt added, but the discovery of the importance of character education could have “very real implications for how we educate and parent our children”.
"Because though nobody could possibly argue that striving for attainment is anything other than a noble aspiration, the evidence in support of character education throws up an even more arresting contention. And this is the crucial question education reformers must now answer,” Mr Hunt said.
"What if we've been getting it wrong? What if our efforts have led to some to pretty harmful unintended consequences? That in our determination to floor the attainment accelerator we have unwittingly overheated the engine? Wasting the most precious resource this country has – the talent of our young people – in the process."
Mr Hunt told delegates at the Character Conference, organised by the Demos think-tank, that striving for good academic achievement is still the most basic function of schooling.
Alongside basic standards and world class teaching, children should get a good "character" education, he suggested.
Under government plans announced by Ms Morgan, eight projects using the values and expertise of the armed forces are to be given nearly £5m to work with schools to help raise results and develop skills such as self-confidence, respect and leadership.
There will also be new Character Awards to recognise schools that build character, resilience and grit in students.
"For pupils who may have faced challenges or difficulties in their personal life, these initiatives run by former armed services personnel can offer a sense of greater aspiration and can help build the skills and confidence they need to go on to good jobs and successful futures," Ms Morgan said.
Teachers can put their questions to Tristram Hunt as part of a live video chat with the shadow education secretary from 5pm tomorrow, Tuesday 9 December. To view the chat or to leave your questions, click here.