Schools cannot afford to focus solely on academic attainment, education secretary Nicky Morgan has insisted.
The warning came as Ms Morgan presented the first Character Awards for schools. The £400,000 government prizes are part of her plan to encourage schools to teach character education so that pupils develop “grit and resilience”.
Ms Morgan told the winners that qualities such as confidence and assertiveness had got her through her first days as a City lawyer. They “weren’t the ones I’d learned by reading textbooks or taking exams”, she added.
“I could have known the British legal system inside out, but without the right personal skills, I’d never have had a successful – or enjoyable – 16 years as a lawyer,” the secretary of state said. “So in much the same way, it’s obvious to me, and I’m sure to anyone with an interest in education, that we can’t afford to narrow our focus to academic attainment alone.”
Asked afterwards by TES if there was any research evidence showing it was possible to teach good character in schools and that it produced results, Ms Morgan conceded “it is a hard thing to measure”.
But she said: “Parents and families know when a child has had lessons in character or behaviour and that sort of thing and when they haven’t."
The national winner of the awards – King's Leadership Academy, a free school in Warrington – gives its pupils daily lessons in character and also teaches leadership as a distinct subject.
Principal Shane Ierston said this helped to ensure good attendance, adding that the school had not had a single exclusion since it opened in 2012.
“We see character almost as a moral compass that gives [pupils] something to draw upon when they are making difficult decisions,” he explained.
The secondary, which was awarded a total of £35,000 in prize money, also provides weekly public speaking, philosophy and ethics classes, teaches all pupils fencing, and ensures they all participate in its brass orchestra and have three hours a week of formal team sports.
Students take it in turns to greet visitors to the school in order to boost their self-confidence.
Another 26 schools received £10,000 each as regional winners in the competition, which received more than 550 entries.
Ms Morgan told TES: “It is all very well to know the quadratic equation. But actually if you haven’t got those skills, which employers and universities say that they need – the well-roundedness, the confidence, the resilience, the persistence – then actually just being academic I don’t think is enough in the modern world.”
But headteachers’ leaders have warned that the government’s “accountability culture” has squeezed out the space schools need to develop character.
“It will not be achieved by bolt-on curriculum solutions or yet more inspection. It is at the very heart of what education is for,” Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said. “Accountability measures need to be slimmer and smarter in order to give schools the flexibility to develop these characteristics in children.”
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Character and grit more important to success than grades, says Hunt – 8 December 2014
Tristram Hunt: Children should be taught 'grit and determination' in school – 12 February 2014 Former Number 10 policy guru to open chain of free schools based on 'knowledge and virtue' – 6 April 2014