The education secretary Nicky Morgan is hardly short of things to do – responsibility for equalities, debate in the Cabinet about major international issues, a tight budget to manage and a set of important and controversial education reforms to implement.
So why has she chosen to put the question of education and character at the centre of debate? “I think character and developing good character are vital for helping people to see the light,” she says. “We spend a lot of time in education thinking about educational standards and attainment. And that’s really, really important, but actually life is about more than that. It’s about being able to cope with setbacks, it’s about having confidence and self-esteem and it’s also about resilience. Modern life can be complicated – we ought to build a strong next generation.”
Her focus on the theme has been welcomed by many, including some who are sceptical about other aspects of her agenda.
She is not the first to emphasise character, of course. Ninety years ago, in the most significant report of the interwar years, Sir William Hadow took up the character theme when making recommendations about the secondary curriculum, as more young people began to stay at school after the age of 14.
Hadow and his committee reflected for more than two years before publishing the renowned report The Education of the Adolescent. If there were prizes for literary excellence in education reports, Hadow would certainly receive a medal. His most significant recommendation, which shapes the system even now, was that all-age elementary schools should be divided at age 11 into primary and secondary departments. Ideally the secondary department would become a separate “modern” school. He also recommended raising the school-leaving age to 15.
A more leisurely age
Neither of these changes happened fast. It was a more leisurely age, and education was much further down the list of government priorities than it is now. The school-leaving age wasn’t raised to 15 until the late 1940s, and the last all-age elementary school was finally reorganised in 1971, in Somerset.
Hadow realised, of course, that these major structural reforms required new thinking about the curriculum. He was one of those distinguished intellectual liberals who did so much to shape 20th-century Britain.
The curriculum, he believed, had to prepare young people for the world they were in. In one of many flowing sentences of his report (sadly no longer found in such documents), he argued: “The educationalist, unless he would build castles in the air, is bound at every turn to take account of the probable future of the children and the nature of industrial society into which [they] will enter.”
Along with the basics and practical subjects, he recommended “the free and broad air of general and humane education which, if it remembers handiwork, does not forget music”. But this would not be enough. He argued that education needed to play a part “in the forming and strengthening of character – individual and national character – through the placing of youth, in the hour of its growth, ‘as it were in the fair meadow’ ”.
How does Morgan’s view 90 years later differ? Given her emphasis on “unleashing greatness”, rather than imposition, what can she actually do? Is it in the end, as Hadow argued, simply a question of hoping that “the teachers of our country” as well as “the influence of the home” will create “a new generation” that have character, taste and trained skill?
“In the Department for Education, we are dependent on teachers and headteachers to deliver great service at the front line, whether we are talking about great teaching or about great character development or extracurricular activities,” she says. “You would squash [character education] out of the system if you made it a part of the accountability framework or if you had some way of testing it.
“The whole point is that it is about every young person developing that resilience, that grit, that persistence, that determination. What I can do is say that this is really important and we do want to build this generation of strong young people who are going to be critical for the future of this country.”
She does agree that optional qualifications, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, have a lot going for them.
So how does the emphasis on character relate to the government’s theme of British values? Is this similar to Hadow’s emphasis on national as well as individual character?
“I think British values are the values that we think make us great as a nation. They are not exclusive to Britain. Things like freedom, rule of law, democracy and also those individual things like respect for, and tolerance of, others, which really is quite a British thing,” Morgan says. “In terms of the characteristics that we want to see young people developing individually, I think things like persistence and resilience are important. So [individual character and British values] are definitely interlinked, but they are different things.”
A champion of grit?
In the event, the governments of Hadow’s era made little headway with character. Education was not given the priority it is now; the Board of Education in the 1930s was described as “an outpost of the Treasury” and its role became one of cutting expenditure once the Great Depression set in. By contrast, in the contemporary era of austerity, education budgets – while inevitably tight – have been protected. The recent Budget’s support for extracurricular activity is evidence that Morgan has managed to put character on the whole government’s agenda.
So, beautiful though Hadow’s prose was, the theme of character disappeared from view. David Blunkett raised “education with character” again in the 2001 Green Paper (which I wrote), but it wasn’t taken up then, either.
Given that track record, how significant a part of Morgan’s legacy in education does she think the character agenda might become? Will it be her distinctive contribution to education, to be remembered in 20 years’ time?
“Oh, I really would like it to feature,” she says. “We have got a very ambitious set of education reforms in terms of the quality of teaching, curriculum, school structure and everything else. But I would feel that we had not done our best by a generation of young people if I hadn’t also been pointing out and driving the character agenda. Education is the greatest investment that we can make in our country and that means we have really got to invest in [our young people]. That means helping them to develop as strong, resilient young people who are going to contribute to the future of this country.”
The recent Budget suggests that she means exactly what she says. Maybe education for character has at last found a champion who will ensure, this time, it becomes central to daily life in schools. If so, Sir William Hadow would be the first to applaud.
Sir Michael Barber is chief education adviser at Pearson, independent chair of the new Foundation for Leadership in Education and author of How to Run a Government: so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy