", Feature, 20 June), this conception has been a feature of Western civilisation for millennia. While she traces its decline to the Enlightenment, I believe the real turning point was the emergence of postmodernism. The post-war crisis of adult authority and the growth of moral relativism shunted out of classroom practice the idea that schools should develop a range of virtues in children. A similar and parallel calamity happened to the teaching of knowledge in schools. But just as the extreme social liberalism of the 1960s and 70s is fading, we should not be surprised that educating for character is making a comeback. Indeed, parents are crying out for it: polling by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has shown that 87 per cent of them want schools to educate for academic excellence and character development.
This argument would be confined to the ivory towers of university education departments if modern science were not reinforcing the wisdom of the ancients. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown that character strengths, sometimes called non-cognitive traits, are skill-like and can be positively influenced with the right instruction. Alongside James Arthur, director of the Jubilee Centre and professor of education and civic engagement, I have summarised the many benefits brought by the purposeful development of these virtues.
`Character plus academics'
Character is not fixed, the leopard can change her spots and we can all become better versions of ourselves. This is a profoundly optimistic view of human potential and matches the aspirations that many teachers have for their pupils.
Aha, say some critics, this may all be true but we know your real purpose: you want to dilute the focus on standards with this wishy-washy stuff. To answer that, look at the evolution of the Kipp (Knowledge Is Power Program) group of charter schools in the US, whose story is told by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed. A group of schools formed to get poor, mainly black, urban children into college, Kipp found that its no-excuses academic approach was phenomenally successful at getting children into university - up to 10 times the local average - but not great at keeping them there.
Looking back at its data, Kipp found that the best predictor of college graduation was not grades, but the ability to stick to tasks. This led it to the door of the University of Pennsylvania, and Angela Duckworth in particular. Duckworth pioneered the understanding and measurement of "grit" in young people, and has shown that this quality - perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals - is a better predictor of success than IQ. She helped Kipp to develop its character growth report card, and Kipp co-founder Dave Levin now talks of "character plus academics" as the twin strands of education's DNA. My charity, Floreat Education, is taking the same approach, aiming to develop both virtue and knowledge in primary school children.
Far from being a fad, developing young people's character virtues, of which mindfulness is a small but important part, is as old as the hills. The traditional purpose of moral education - giving children the practical wisdom to make good decisions for their own benefit and the benefit of others - has been given new impetus by the cognitive sciences. It is Furedi and his fellow critics, not the advocates of character education, who are the historical anomalies, the freewheeling faddists of a fading era. The question is not why we should educate for character, but how can we not?
James O'Shaughnessy was head of the Downing Street policy unit during 2010-11 and is director of Mayforth Consulting