Today's lesson: how to be a better person

19th June 2015 at 01:00

"Character" is a slippery word. Most would agree intuitively that to have it is a good thing. But look at the type of public figures that we describe as characters: Oliver Reed, George Best, Richard Burton, Peter Cook, Alex Higgins.

These are men (usually) capable of searing brilliance but also long spells of stultifying mediocrity, punctuated by self-destruction. When the last dregs of their talent are expunged, we are left with a nagging regret that they never achieved their potential; "character" is exposed as a tragic euphemism.

If that were the interpretation of character being espoused in Scottish schools, it would make for interesting, if rather chaotic classrooms.

The version on display at a two-day international conference at the University of Glasgow this week, however, was more about gritty resolve in the face of adversity, about having the moral nous to prosper amid the myriad challenges of 21st-century life - ideas that few are likely to take issue with but which are startlingly broad in scope.

Character education is increasingly fashionable and, like citizenship and entrepreneurialism, it is a concept that has not traditionally had an explicit space in school timetables but now has many high-profile and reputable backers.

At this week's conference, organised by the charity Character Scotland, renowned Canadian educator Avis Glaze said that focusing on character would yield more time for teachers rather than add to their burden; that it would make students more streetwise and drive up academic standards. What's more, this is what businesses want - give us strong characters, they say, and we'll deal with the skills.

A counterargument is that explicitly bringing character into school risks making it feel like an adjunct. ("Right, we've done character now - let's move on to other stuff.") Surely strong characters are the by-product of features that have long been woven through good schools: strong values, hard work, pastoral support and all the rest?

The idea of instilling character sounds curiously old hat, like something from a Victorian novel, and sceptics might suggest that it is best cultivated organically by exposure to the world rather than through educational programmes. As Goethe put it: "Talent develops in quiet places, character in the full current of human life."

Proponents of character education (which is also being promoted by Westminster education secretary Nicky Morgan) should tread carefully around Scottish teachers; the pain of implementing new qualifications is raw and unions continue to despair of a workload "tsunami".

To hard-pressed teachers - fewer in number and higher in stress levels than a few years ago - character education may seem like yet another thing to get their heads around. Like any new initiative, it will have to come up with a mightily compelling narrative to take off in Scottish schools.

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