Ignore the Cynics: Make 'Academics and Character' the Goal of Education

As any parent knows, nothing is more important or more challenging than helping children grow into good, kind and responsible young people. Yet this essential task of character development is full of paradoxes.

As any parent knows, nothing is more important or more challenging than helping children grow into good, kind and responsible young people. Yet this essential task of character development is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, the evidence is clear that that having character strengths like grit, resilience and self-control playing a huge role in determining whether people will find success and happiness in life. On the other, we know precious little about to develop these traits, either in the home or at school.

Similarly, while the purposeful development of good character is one of the most ancient of education practices - in the West it can trace its roots back to Aristotle and the development of virtue - it is also at the cutting edge of research in fields like positive psychology and neuroscience. It feels like common sense but can be incredibly hard to pin down. So what are we to make of the rush of interest in character education in schools?

The demand for character education is not in doubt - 87% of parents polled by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues wanted to see a 'character + academics' approach in schools. But we must bear in mind Oscar Wilde's dictum that "each man kills the thing he loves", and nothing kills a good idea in education like the political and bureaucratic classes stomping around mandating this, that or the other in schools. Teachers are eager for permission to educate for character, especially in secular schools, but in order to do so they need a culture of innovation and inquiry, not top-down programmes and targets.

In that light, the UK government's announcement that it will support the creation of new character education initiatives and fund the expansion of existing ones is good news. We need more experimentation and evaluation at school-level so we can find out what works. This is exactly the kind of positive culture that has grown up around the pupil premium, focusing minds on the unacceptable academic performance gap between the have and have nots.

But while we inch forward to a more rounded view of education we need to be aware of the rising tide of problems young people face: a difficult labour market, growing incidences of mental illness, unprecedented levels of debt. The future is challenging and we must use the opportunity of compulsory schooling to equip young people with the character strengths they need to thrive. Academic achievement is the sine qua non of schooling, of course, but it must be complemented and amplified by good character education. Many other countries already know this: they face the same issues and are leaping ahead.

As well as running Floreat Education, a charity that is opening new primary state schools, I chair an organisation called the International Positive Education Network (IPEN). Its goal is to change policy and practice in order to promote an "academics plus character & wellbeing" approach to education. Through IPEN I've seen the amazing strides other countries are taking, like the new character curriculum in Singapore, already one of the top-performing countries academically, and the state wide commitment to student wellbeing in South Australia. In the US a new organisation, Character Lab, is funding research and promoting best practice in schools. Dozens of countries, from China to Slovakia, India to Mexico, are seeing schools and colleges embrace purposeful character education. This truly is a worldwide movement.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has stated that she wants Britain to be a world leader in character education. This is a welcome level of ambition but we are already falling behind. Her challenge, and that of everyone else who thinks that schools have a responsibility to educate for character, is to move ahead cautiously but firmly. She must ignore the cynics who say you need to choose between academic rigour and character development. The best schools do both. From this point forward it must be the central mission of every Education Secretary to ensure that each child receives the academic and character education they need to flourish.

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