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Former Number 10 policy guru to open chain of free schools based on 'knowledge and virtue'

A former adviser to David Cameron and one of the chief proponents behind the "character education" movement is opening a string of free schools in West London. 

James O’Shaughnessy (pictured), who acted as chief policy adviser to the prime minister in Number 10, is expected to open two primary schools in September next year that will deliver a curriculum based on “knowledge and virtue”.

The former wonk was one of the main driving forces behind the coalition’s “happiness index” when in Downing Street, which aimed to measure Britain's well-being, and he is now bringing his philosophy to a chain of free schools.

After leaving Number 10’s policy unit, he set up Floreat Education, and has been working with the support of his alma mater, the £33,000-a-year boarding school Wellington College, as well as the University of Birmingham and Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust to open the primary schools.

Mr O’Shaughnessy said the decision to create schools in the primary sector was one driven by the sense that “greater gains” could be achieved earlier on in a child’s school career.

“I think you could argue that the secondary sector already gets a lot of attention and because of this the primary sector can sometimes be ignored,” he said. “But there are the opportunities to realise much greater gains at this level.”

Floreat is planning to submit a body of research, called the Virtue and Knowledge School Model, which it hopes will receive funding so it can then be implemented as a curriculum in the two schools.

The idea is it will “develop both the pupils’ minds and their character” by emphasising “rigorous academic study” as well as working the children’s character strengths.

The topic of character education has been particularly in fashion recently, with both education secretary Michael Gove and his opposite number, Labour’s Tristram Hunt recently making calls for “virtue” and “character” to be more explicit in schools.

Even the All Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility made a direct call for “character education” to be included in the curriculum.

According to Floreat, the Virtue and Knowledge curriculum will focus on core skills, such as numeracy and literacy, cultural knowledge, to give pupils a deeper understanding of the world around them. Alongside these will be an emphasis on curiosity and developing character.

One school, Floreat Wandsworth, has already been signed off by the Department for Education, while a second is expected to be opened in Brentford, but a formal application has yet to be submitted. Both are planned to open in September 2015.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that she supported the idea of teaching resilience to children, but said it was not necessary to start a free school in order to teach it.

"Most state schools already teach character, but more and more schools are being forced to teach kids that success in life is about fulfilling targets and getting grades in exams, which is not about character," Dr Bousted said.

"A lot of character goes hand in hand with skills development and I suspect Mr O'Shaughnessy does not look too favourably on that."  

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