Editorial: Character classes? Please, we want something more

"We must meet reverses boldly, and not suffer them to frighten us, my dear. We must learn to act the play out. We must live misfortune down, Trot!" David Copperfield's great-aunt, Miss Betsey, tells him of her ruination while sitting on all that remains of her worldly possessions and what can only be described as bags of character.

As 2014 ended, it was all about character. Education secretary Nicky Morgan said she wanted England to be the global leader in character education; her shadow, Tristram Hunt, reckoned it was more important to children's futures than purely focusing on getting good grades; and the CBI urged Ofsted to give it as much importance as exam results.

For all the virtues extolled by its advocates, what character education has turned into in the hands of politicians is a marvellous bit of flim-flam in this election year. It is something that both major political parties agree is A Good Thing, as well as being so difficult to define that it can be used to obscure and obfuscate.

There is a rather a large elephant in the room: the unparalleled reform that is verging on chaos. Rather than address this, our politicians are going to dress it up in a frou-frou skirt of character education and make it dance the can-can to distract. We put our children under immense pressure; we hobble them with unnecessary stress and, instead of trying to relieve it, we now plan to give them a makeshift crutch to carry on.

The government has made pound;3.5 million available to schools offering character education and has allocated a further pound;1 million for research to find the most effective ways to teach it. This is on top of the pound;4.8 million already committed to projects designed to instil a military discipline in students. All this despite the fact that no one really knows how much of a person's character is hereditary or whether it can be taught, let alone how to teach it.

Promoting desirable traits is indeed A Good Thing. Resilience, perseverance, determination and grit are all to be encouraged. According to James O'Shaughnessy of Floreat Education, one of the movement's leading lights, strength of character plus academic knowledge is what allows young people to flourish. But is this really so different from what almost all schools endeavour to provide: a good, rounded education?

It may be nothing new - the notion of flourishing and living a good life has its roots in Aristotle - but what makes it different today is it how nakedly utilitarian it has become. In the US, the Knowledge Is Power Program (Kipp), a leader in the field, describes its schools as preparation for college and a career; over here, the chance to mould the future workforce is why politicians and the CBI are so interested.

There's no denying that education must prepare children for work, but it must also prepare them for life, to think about the kind of people they want to be, to explore the values they want to espouse. It's not enough to help them pick themselves up after failure; they have to be able to learn from it. This is what advocates of character education call "failing well" - and it is key to making this whole idea work.

In the words of Mrs Micawber: "Experientia does it".


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